Wendy J. Dunn is the Managing Editor of Other Terrain journal. She has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since she was ten-years-old. She is the author of two Anne Boleyn novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction, and The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel. Born in Melbourne, Australia, Wendy is married and the mother of three sons and one daughter – named after a certain Tudor queen, surprisingly, not Anne. She gained her Doctorate of Philosophy (Writing) from Swinburne University in 2014 and is a Writing tutor in their Writing Program, as well as the proud Managing Editor of Backstory journal and Other Terrain.
Eugen Bacon, MA, MSc, PhD, is a computer scientist mentally re-engineered into creative writing. She has sold many stories and articles, together with anthologies. Her stories have won, been shortlisted and commended in international awards, including the Bridport Prize, L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest and Copyright Agency Prize.
Eugen is also the Senior Editor of Other Terrain.
I dedicate this poem to the Manus Island detainees who have lost their lives.
We have them all in our minds and will never forget them.
You are not colour
You are not smell.
You are not shadow.
You are not sunshine.
You are absolute darkness for me,
with no beginning or end.
In which part of the world can I find you?
If someday you pass though this city
tie a red scarf around your neck
so I can recognize you.
I’ll sit on the train tracks waiting
for you to descend.
I don’t know what you are.
But I whisper your name like a lost child.
Freedom, set me free from this prison!
This prison made by fellow human beings.
I am a rain drop
waiting to join the sea.
look how my brain is frozen.
A spider web has surrounded my thoughts.
Smoke and dust sit on my mind;
my heart is surrounded by hatred.
They made a cage in my throat —
But they left this voice and enough breath to speak my truth.
If you come to this country someday
you will pass through a city of blood.
If you saw all the blood on the ground
you would never return, from fear.
We accept death just like life here:
we see no difference between water and blood.
tell me about windows that open to gardens.
Tell me about the singing of birds.
Tell me about the dancing of butterflies.
Tell me about the playing of fish.
Look how I forget these simple, everyday things!
I will not sit waiting for you.
You have killed my hope.
You have destroyed my goals.
You did not show mercy to my friends —
You led them to their deaths.
You made men sick by searching for you and killed them.
You hung and murdered others.
You pushed another into the river to drown.
You hit a stone on some poor man’s head and ended his life too.
Is this the meaning of freedom for you?
I’ve accepted my death here.
For years the ceiling of my room has been my sky.
Take my life and set me free.
I’m fed up with dying every single second.
Pour my blood into the veins of my country —
I don’t want my blood to dry beside my bones.
I had hoped to see my mother again one day:
but the dandelions have told me she is dead.
*Poem by Mohammad Ali Maleki
Translated by Mansour Shoushtari
Edited by Michele Seminara
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.
This essay won the 2017 Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers Competition for Non fiction and was first published in Writers Victoria.
I find myself in no-man’s-land – a large and largely empty space between freedom and detention. It has taken months of patient planning to get this far. Copies of passport, driver’s licence, Working with Children check, Federal Police check, and proof of professional status, together with detailed ‘Visitor’ forms and my car’s registration number, were long ago completed, signed, carefully scanned, and sent as requested. Apparently the copies were not clear enough for the detention centre administration so I sent them again. When new information was requested I sent the forms again. When colour copies were requested I sent them again. When the office could not locate my completed, signed, scanned, clear, detailed, coloured copies I sent them again. No reason was given the next time; they knew there was no need. I sent the copies again. I learned to wait, to ask for nothing, and to expect nothing – familiar working territory for a psychotherapist, but for an infant it is a sign ofdespair.
In the spring of 2014 I was taken to visit a place in Melbourne where families were imprisoned, guards accompanied children to school, and babies were born and raised in detention. I met people of all ages but, as a perinatal psychotherapist, I was particularly interested in the babies and their parents.
Many of the parents were depressed. This was not surprising. They believed that they were coming to Australia for a better life for themselves and for their children; instead they were isolated, interned, and identified by number.
Confused and frustrated by a slippery and slow-moving bureaucracy that appeared to have no deadline for refugee-status decision-making, parents were powerless to act. My efforts to gain access may have left me feeling like a character in a Kafka novel but, unlike these families, I was free to leave, to make plans for my future, and to live a useful life.
I discovered that the birth of a baby in detention was logged as an “incident”. The incident was given a number and classified as “minor”. I learned that asylum-seeking families relied on the kindness of strangers for ‘luxuries’ like children’s clothes, nursery items for babies, and even bananas. And while there were many kind strangers, there was very little joy for babies and their mothers. With this in mind I resolved to make a space for play.
Babies are born to play; it is how they communicate with mother, father, and others. Research from a range of disciplines has helped us appreciate that infants arrive in the world with an extraordinary capacity for communication; all they need is a mother (or other) who is willing and able to respond. Studies in developmental psychology have shown that, within one hour of birth, healthy infants can mimic tongue, eye and mouth movements and sounds; a few hours later they can imitate a range of facial expressions, and head and finger movements. By two to three days of age they can tell the difference between a smiling, frowning, or surprised face, and accurately imitate each one. From birth, babies move their bodies to the rhythm of their mother’s voice. A healthy mother will respond by adapting her speech to her baby’s movements, and a healthy baby will respond to her speech, and so on; in this way a pattern of playful communication can begin.
Neuroscience gives us hard data that confirms the crucial role of environment during the first months of a baby’s life. At the time of birth, neurons (brain cells) in the cerebral cortex (the part of our brain responsible for processing information) are standing by, ready to link up via their synapses (the space
between brain cells). The stimulation of birth and the infant’s early environment creates a surge of synaptic connections at a rate of two million per second. The number, type, and duration of connections are dependent upon the quality and quantity of the infant’s interactions with others. By the age of three months, the parts of the cerebral cortex that oversee vision, hearing, and touch have realised maximum synaptic density. An infant’s environment shapes her brain, literally.
The twentieth century British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, John Bowlby may have been surprised by the extraordinary development of neuroscience but not by its findings. He believed that our very survival depends on our attachment to our caregivers. Challenging psychoanalytic theory that failed to accommodate the influence of environment, he borrowed from ethology to mount a scientific argument for the infant’s biological need to have mother physically and emotionally present. Bowlby’s recognition of the attachment needs of infants was an important contribution to our understanding of human development. There is now an abundance of research telling us that the cognitive, physical, and emotional health of each and every baby is dependent upon a warm, loving, and reliable caregiver who is sensitively attuned to that particular baby. The absence of such a caregiver can have devastating consequences. One example of the long-term effects of emotional deprivation is the abandoned children of Ceauşescu’s Romania; Australia’s infants in detention may well prove to be another.
As a volunteer, I am forbidden to exit the other door, the one that leads into the detention area. Having spent many months proving my identity, I am now instructed to not be myself. I am told to leave my politics and my professional status at the door, along with my phone, money, and anything sharp. My basket of play-things is searched and a mirror-toy is confiscated. For some unknown (and perhaps unknowable) reason, I am not to be trusted, much like the people I have come to see – young babies detained indefinitely with their well-meaning parents. In 1992, when Paul Keating, the economic reformist and so-called visionary, introduced mandatory indefinite detention for illegal maritime arrivals in Australia, could he, even in his wildest imaginings, have envisaged this?
Prior to the Australian Human Rights Commission National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, there was no readily available data on the ages of the children. The 2014 Inquiry found that, by the end of March that year, there were 153 infants under the age of two years and that these infants accounted for seventeen per cent of all children in detention. From January 2013 to March 2014 there were 128 babies born to mothers in detention. By September 2014 the average length of detention for children and parents was one year and two months. In May 2015, a Senate Estimates session revealed that one child had been in detention for one thousand, seven hundred and seventy four days.
With coloured fabric and sweet-smelling flowers, I create a physically beautiful space in the far corner of this enormous room, as far away as possible from the door and the disinterested guard who sits beside it. I wait, not knowing if anyone will come, or when. I look through the large windows, past the decking, past the out-door seating, past the fake grass, towards the barbed-wire fence. It looks like rain. The guard tells me that ‘they’ are lazy and will not come. I see a woman, her scarfed head bent, shielding herself from the cold wind. She is pushing a baby-stroller that is covered in clear plastic. I watch her negotiate the rough, unsheltered path that links this space with the accommodation block some distance away. She slowly makes her way to the door that marks the boundary between detention and no-man’s-land. As she stands there, uncomplaining, quietly waiting for the guard to notice her, I am reminded of my dog, waiting for the release command, the one that allows her to run off-leash and play in the park. The guard eventually looks up from his phone and unlocks the door, remotely, via a button under his desk. The woman struggles in the windy conditions, one hand on the stroller, the other pushing open the door, not looking at the guard who does not move to help. Once inside, she checks her scarf. I walk towards her smiling, my right hand outstretched in greeting. She responds with a shy smile and her baby looks at me warily from behind the plastic shield.
As mother removes the shield, she speaks softly and gently to her baby. All warm and pink, the baby girl returns my smile, shyly like her mother, before looking away. She twists her body, trying to find her mother’s face, to check if it is safe to smile again. Her mother’s features are all she needs – a myriad of messages exchanged in one shared gaze:
“Are you there? I’m here.
Do you see me? I see you.
Do you know how I feel? I think so.
Will you keep me safe? I’ll do my best.
Will you help me learn what I need to know? I’ll try”.
But if her mother is depressed, if her mother’s face is blank, the baby’s questions go unanswered and she will not know what to make of me, or indeed, of anything. She will have no reliable reference point, no secure base from which to explore, no safe place to which she can return, and worse, no expectation of one.
When the shield is off, and mother has smiled her approval, I greet the baby. Her arms wave and her legs kick. The play has begun.
Donald Winnicott, the British paediatrician and psychoanalyst, described play almost poetically as an experience that leads to trust and confidence in one’s capacity to live creatively. For Winnicott, play is not so much about the toy or the game but rather about what takes place between the minds of those playing. Play needs space and time. It needs minds that are not depressed, minds that are open to new experience. Play needs hope, and hope needsplay.
Several babies and mothers play on the mat. One mother sits some distance from her baby who is busy trying to grasp a rattle and put it in his mouth. She does not look at him but absent-mindedly picks up a soft toy and strokes it while staring into the distance. I say that her baby is very clever to persist with the rattle but she seems unable to think of his experience. After a while baby crawls towards her to hungrily grasp her clothed breast. Everyone, including his mother, laughs at his determination; he notices this, and looks pleased with himself. In the midst of the play a group of guards walks past. All the mothers freeze, and so do their babies.
A strikingly beautiful woman hands me her equally beautiful baby girl as if it is my right, not hers, to hold and admire her. This mother is warm and generous in her conversations with other mothers and babies but I notice that when she is with her own baby they are unable to look at each other. I wonder what they cannot bear to see. I do not ask; I play. Over the following weeks and months mother’s tragic story is told, in fragments – broken bits and jagged pieces, too awful to hear all at once. Perhaps she does not look in order to protect her baby from seeing what she has suffered, and still suffers; perhaps her baby knows.
One morning, after I have been visiting regularly each week for several months, the receptionist announces that I cannot go into the room to play because my forms are not on file. She says she knows I have completed them – she watched me do it (again) last time– but she cannot let me in because she cannot find them. When I calmly suggest that this is insane, she is un- perturbed, her voice unnaturally bright as she admits: “There are a lot of insane things in this place”.
After one year of making and holding a space for babies to play it is clear that everyone is struggling. Infants born in detention celebrate their first birthday in detention, and their parents, who had previously made good use of the play space to nurture healthy relationships and delight in their babies’ development, are losing hope. Mothers who had once laughed and played, encouraging and supporting their babies’ play, are now quite depressed. Some threaten suicide. While this is desperately sad there are no words to describe the change in their babies. These once joyful, confident, playful infants are now withdrawn, frightened, and easily distressed. Some are refusing milk, sleep, and comfort. There is very little play. It is alI I can do to keep coming, reliably each week, at the same time, to hold the space and with it the possibility of hope.
In 1952, when the Austrian-American psychoanalyst René Spitz showed his film, ‘Grief: a peril in infancy’, to a group of experienced psychiatrists and psychoanalysts he shattered some of their long-held beliefs (or delusions) regarding the mental health of infants. The film clearly showed the physical and psychological decline of very young children who were separated from their mothers and given no reliable mother-substitute. These medical specialists were moved to tears as they witnessed the terrible pain caused by early emotional deprivation. Spitz had opened their minds to uncomfortable truths, truths they could no longer ignore, causing one distressed senior analyst to reproach him with “How could you do this to us?”
A 2010 study, commissioned by the Australian Government, analysed the health records of 700 people in detention and found a clear association between time in detention and rates of mental illness. A number of studies before and since clearly demonstrate that children and adults in detention suffer much greater levels of poor mental health than do families in the general community. This has prompted a number of organisations of health professionals, including the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health, to call for an end to a government- sanctioned system that is making people sick. The conclusion reached by the Australian Human Rights Commission National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention was plain: “it is the fact of detention itself that is causing harm.”
When the mental health of the mothers deteriorates further, they stay in their rooms and fathers bring the babies to play. Their commitment to doing what they believe is best is admirable, but these men are exhausted. They provide every aspect of physical care for their babies and for their wives, staying awake all night to watch over them, fearful that their wives will self-harm. With no space in their parents’ minds for play these immaculately dressed, carefully wrapped babies lie motionless and quiet, asking for nothing and expecting nothing.
Very gently, not wanting to overwhelm her, I bring a bright-coloured but soft- sounding rattle towards a baby girl. Lying on her back, she holds her arms stiffly by her side, her fists clenched, her eyes dull. Gradually she turns her head to look at the toy but she makes no attempt to reach for it and soon turns her head away. Her depleted father does not notice.
Successive Australian governments have argued that the policy of indefinite detention deters people smugglers and prevents deaths at sea. Hence, while some nations responded compassionately to Nilüfer Demir’s heart-wrenching photograph of the drowned body of three year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Australian reaction was more like: “I told you so!”. When Le Monde journalist, Philippe Dagen linked Demir’s now iconic image with Picasso’s Guernica and Poussin’sLe massacre des Innocents, he reminded us that atrocities involving infants in the name of politics or progress are not unprecedented. Surely we must ask: since Herod’s slaughter of infant boys and the Nazi bombing of Basque families, have we learned nothing?
Sadly, it appears that clinging to delusion is preferable to learning the truth. The Australian government’s criticisms of the ABC’s Four Corners report (October 2016) on children detained on Nauru suggest that this is the case. Having failed to effectively silence those who have seen for themselves the human cost of this head-in-the-sand approach to the mental health of families who wanted nothing more than an opportunity to live a safe life, our political leaders would rather risk ridicule than see what we have seen. Of course it may well be a defensive mechanism, one that needs to work hard to protect a fragile but blustering ego. After all, as some of us know, it is not easy to be in the presence of babies and their parents who did not drown but who are dying insideanyway.
Delusion may also explain the Border Force Act which was passed by both sides of Parliament in 2015 and sold to the Australian people as a necessary security measure that would discourage people smugglers. The Act effectively ensures that the general public remains ignorant of the actual experience of people in detention facilities. This may be a misguided attempt to protect the public from the guilt and shame of knowing the truth, but it is unlikely to protect us from the judgement of future generations who will wonder why we did nothing to prevent the systematic destruction of the mental health of innocent children and their parents.
More than seventy years since Spitz’s film a large body of research supports and reinforces his findings: We know that emotional deprivation is catastrophic for infants. We know that indefinite detention not only causes but is, in itself, emotional deprivation. We know that infants and their parents have been, and are still being detained indefinitely. Yet with all this knowing, where is the reproach?
The father apologises. He says he cannot come to playgroup anymore. He must watch his wife. She has twice attempted suicide. He tells me that there is no God and that drowning would be better than this. I wonder who will play with the baby.
Anne Casey is the Senior Poetry Editor of Other Terrain and Backstory journals. Originally from the west of Ireland, she is a writer living in Sydney. Over a 25-year award-winning career, she has worked as a business journalist, magazine editor, corporate and government communications director, author and editor.
Anne’s debut poetry collection, where the lost things go, was published by Salmon Poetry in July 2017. She won the 2017 Glen Phillips Novice Writer Award, and was short-listed for the Cúirt International Poetry Prize and the Eyewear Books Poetry Prize in 2017, as well as the Bangor Annual Poetry Competition in 2016.
Anne’s writing and poetry rank as most-read pieces in Ireland’s leading national daily newspaper, The Irish Times. Her poems have been published internationally in newspapers, magazines, journals and books, and have featured in a major art exhibition and podcasts.
Carolyn is the Faculty’s Program Director of undergraduate and postgraduate Writing courses. This encompasses the Creative Writing and Literature major, Professional Writing and Editing major, Graduate Certificate of Arts (Writing), Graduate Diploma of Arts (Writing), and the Master of Arts (Writing).
She taught Creative Writing, Writing, Journalism, Liberal Arts, Public Relations, and English as a Second Language at Victoria University, Kangan TAFE, and a number of RTOs before joining Swinburne’s Writing Discipline as a sessional in 2004 and then as a permanent staff member in 2009.
Carolyn is a multiple award-winning short story writer. She has also worked as a photographer, journalist, and freelance writer. She also regularly judges literary awards. Her journalism and fiction has been published both nationally and internationally. She has been awarded an ALTC and Swinburne’s Vice Chancellor’s Award for her teaching in prisons. Carolyn was also the recipient of three internal team research grants, two Faculty teaching Innovation Awards, a Learning Futures grant, and the Faculty Leadership and Service Award for 2017.
Carolyn is the Editor-in-Chief of Other Terrain and Backstory.
Nessa O’Mahony was born in Dublin and lives there. She won the National Women’s Poetry Competition in 1997 and was shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Prize and Hennessy Literature Awards. She has published four books – Bar Talk, appeared (1999), Trapping a Ghost(2005), In Sight of Home(2009) and Her Father’s Daughter(2014). She is co-editor with Siobhán Campbell of Eavan Boland: Inside History, co-editor of Metamorphic: 21stcentury poets respond to Ovid(with Paul Munden) and presents The Attic Sessions, a monthly literary podcast.
To ride the curved fronds
of rain-splashed palms
with nothing but
to cut through
like the sunburnt skin
of a gum tree,
wounds flayed exposing
an ivory gleam.
To drown in the truth
as rain glistens silver
on a ripple of green.
To feel like a panther
in an auditorium,
like a cripple
on a glass mountain.
To enter my heart
the arc of a bird
to fly from my pain
an entire flock
There’s a shiver
stretched like a graft
of mottled cloud,
with tireless generosity.
And a whipbird hides
in coils of lantana
his serrated tongue
the gentle stanzas of dusk,
its verdant syllables:
its fragrant leaves.
First appeared in The Accidental Cage, IP 2006
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.
*A found poem sourced from a joint letter published in New Matilda on 10 Jul 2014. The letter was signed by 137 academics from across the globe and condemned the Australian Government’s treatment of refugees.
(This poem was first published in ‘Writing to the Wire’ (UWA Publishing, 2016).)
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.
Tonight the air smelled of rain as I stood in King George Square for one hour, holding a sign over my head protesting the brutal bipartisan practice of off-shore detention. I have done this – somewhere in Australia or overseas – for more than 150 days, much of it consecutive.
The question I am most often asked is why I do it.
I am a writer of fantasy. I spend my time in imagined worlds. I have won book of the year twice. I have mainstream publishers waiting for manuscripts and a dozen smaller deadlines for articles breathing down my neck. I am trying to complete a PhD. I have thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook. But I stand, deliberately anonymous, a lone person with a sign.
The seeds of the answer lie in the protest at the Lady Cilento Hospital in Brisbane, centred on the refugee baby Asha and her mother. One night I was home in Brisbane, where I am living while I complete my PhD at UQ. I saw a tweet saying a few people were gathering at the hospital in solidarity with Doctors blocking the Immigration Department’s attempt to deport the baby back to a detainment camp on Manus Island. The tweet urged people to join those protesting. The thought of a baby being sent to off shore detention sounded unthinkable to me. I said I was tempted to join the protestors but I was about to make dinner.
‘I can make my own dinner,’ my daughter said. ‘Go.’
I didn’t know the way, I didn’t have a car and it was late at night, but I found my way there via public transport and a bit of walking around, only to see five people in the empty square beside the hospital, one kneeling on the ground making signs. I thought how absurd they looked. I felt I ought to go home and get on with real life. It was silly to join these few strangers in what was clearly a lost cause.
And yet there was something so irresistibly quixotic in their minimal presence. I felt a rush of love for these people with their mad courage and decided to be with them in solidarity. I crossed the road to join them that night, never knowing I was crossing the Rubicon, and that there would be no going back.
I returned hope at dawn, and slept a few hours before undertaking normal life. I went back every night thereafter to protest all night long, when the blazing sun set and the day watch wearied, went home, or rolled themselves in sleeping bags.
Sometimes, being naturally insomniac, I was the only one awake while all the world slept, and I sometimes looked up at the windows of the hospital imagining Asha’s mother, silently pacing, the baby sleeping safe, oblivious to us or Peter Dutton and the Border Force guards, the Media and the Oligarchs who own and manipulate it. I thought of how it had been to be in hospital after giving birth to my daughter; the quiet purposefulness of the nurses, the Coca-Cola and mars bars they consumed to stay alert.
Some nights, people came by wanting to know what we were doing. One night two drunk foreigners who had passed in a taxi, came back with alcohol and chips. We accepted the chips, refused the alcohol, explaining it might be enough to have the police move us along. One my one, the other protestors slept, until I was the only one awake. I spent an hour trying to answer their questions, correct their misapprehensions, encourage them to look up information for themselves. They sobered slowly, and by the end, leaving, both of them hugged me. After they went away, leaving me feeling exhausted but content, several of the ‘sleepers’ applauded.
The number of protestors grew. People all over Australia and beyond began sending pizzas and coffee. I was dazzled perhaps because I had seen- been part of- the tiny seed of resistance that grew and grew until politicians came to talk to us, the media turned up with cameras, and we had to ask people not to toot in solidarity because it would disturb the patients. Sometimes, parents of children in hospital came out to talk with us. Once, a protestor drove a terribly distressed mother home, when she realised there were no more buses.
It was a potent experience for a person in whom the lonely, often frightened child of primary school years still resides. As a teenager locked in my sense of being an outsider, I had watched friendship groups form and fall apart, envying the friendship but not the conformity that seemed to be required by it. But this solidarity I found at Lady Cilento was something else entirely. It was not about us and our needs and wants. It was all those people, standing day by day in defence of the human rights of an unknown asylum seeker and her injured baby. We never saw Asha or her mother in all that time. Not once. Not then and never since, even though we won to the extent that they are still in community detention on a bridging visa that could be snatched away at any time.
So does the Government silence the oppressed among us, preventing them telling us their stories, or anyone else’s.
It didn’t matter that we did not see her. Asha stood for all the oppressed and broken, all the lost souls crushed under the oppressive neoliberal world that cared nothing for ordinary people like us, let alone desperate traumatized seekers of asylum like Asha’s mother. We were standing for them, and for ourselves. We were not sitting at home wringing our hands. We were acting.
The fact that we were supporting the doctors inside, and the nurses, who were getting in the way of the immigration department, gave us a gravitas that drew many to the protest who might otherwise have turned away.
There were people from all walks of life, and for the days that the protest lasted, we lived and existed in that small space, enduring one another’s differences, enlivened and inspired by one another. I remember thinking how seldom in life you ever feel so potently that you are in the right place at the right time doing the right thing as strongly as I did, during that protest. And it was not only me. Everyone who took part in that protest was changed by it, and many, like me, were inspired to a higher level of activism.
It was not only that we were protecting Asha and her mother. Not only that we succeeded in stopping her from being deported. It was that I saw up close how our protest inspired hope and even a fierce rebellious joy in a time when people were hungering for justice and courage in a world that seemed to be arranged to take care only of the rich and powerful; When poverty was judged a moral failing, and people seeking rightful asylum were branded by a thousand names designed to demonise them, so that they could be pushed into off shore detention camps.
Before Lady Cilento I had felt frightened, depressed, helpless and hopeless.
The feeling that I could not change anything led me often to despair.
I did not imagine how taking part in that protest would empower me, give me a way to act that embodied my ideals and anger and outrage, my abilities. I did not know that it would set that frightened child inside me free.
I did not know where it would lead.
I started standing alone with my sign, protesting off shore detention almost a year later, during the final days of the siege of Lorengau on Manus Island. A siege that was, conveniently, and late, found to be illegal by the PNG High Court. Ever since the Lady Cilento protest, I had kept an eye on the situation on Manus Island. So I was informed and I watched on social media as refugees refused to leave in the countdown to closure, protesting their removal to another camp, which we now know was not complete, not adequate to the needs of the people who would be put there, and not big enough to hold all of them. In addition, it was situated in the midst of enraged locals on Nauru, and island about the size of Tullamarine airport.
Their refusal to leave was regarded by many Australian as pointless and puzzling, even ungrateful, due to a media blitz of misinformation representing the ‘new accommodation’ as unthinkably lavish, and refugees as undeserving. The media presentations of the desperate protest might as well have been choreographed by the increasingly powerful, increasingly oppressive Department that had since morphed into Peter Dutton’s empire. We know now from a hundred reports and eye witness accounts that everything the refugees feared was correct. The UN has condemned us over and over, accusing Australia of serious human rights violations.
I watched in horror as power and water were cut and the camp was inexorably dismantled around sick, traumatised, desperate refugees protesting with the only thing they had – their bodies. I was packing to fly to Oregon to do research for my PhD and knew I would be on the other side of the world when the last day came. I felt suffocated imagining how those refugees, innocent people trapped for years, now being forced from one camp in to another, knowing they were hated by locals, with no end to their captivity in sight.
The night before I flew, I posted in despair that all of us who opposed offshore detention should just go into a public place and sit down and refuse to shop or work or move, until the inhumane practice was ended. If there were enough of us, no politician could stand against us. Someone responded saying that Australians would never bother.
A stubborn furious outrage flared up in me, and yet here was I about to fly away. Impulsively, I posted that I would make a sign and stand with it alone, then, in Oregon. I didn’t care if it was pointless and mad. I had to do something. I flew to Oregon and in between doing my research while the archival library was open, tweeting and posting my support for the besieged refugees, I made a sign accusing Australia of humanitarian abuses on Manus and Nauru and stood for an hour a day with it somewhere in public. I posted a daily picture of myself on Facebook and Twitter, doing it and related any conversations I had as well as information about the siege.
It was not easy to stand alone with a sign far from home, yet I felt that in a small way, I was sharing in the vulnerability of the refugees.
Of course, people there wondered what on earth I was doing. I told them: ‘I am accusing my country. I want the world to accuse them. I want them to stop off-shore detention.’
‘I didn’t know Australia was like that,’ one woman memorably said. ‘I thought it was better than that.’
Returning home after a month away, seeing the ever worsening situation in off shore detention, I made a new sign and went out into Brisbane somewhere public, day after day, standing for an hour. I made no overtures. I answered questions asked by passer-by’s and I kept myself informed, so that I could do that efficiently. I urged people to check for themselves and let me know if I was wrong. I had also realised that people were using my Facebook page and twitter site as an information hub about the refugees and I wanted to offer up to date information.
Some days I could not stand. I took to carrying the sign with me as I did the things I had to do on those days. I carried it on buses, along streets, to the pool, to cafes and movies and even to the doctor. Incidental activism I called it, recommending it to people. I had hundreds of conversations with people who wanted to know what the sign meant, why I was carrying it. People took photos to post and asked if they could hug me, they smiled and nodded and told me it was hopeless but applauded my stand. Most seemed to agree that off shore detention was an abomination, and those that disagreed always did so in Government approved language. ‘Queue jumpers’, ‘economic refugees’.
Sometimes those that disagreed, told me I was brave. That seemed a kind of triumph because it played against the government’s attempts to demonise activists and advocates, because they would not silence us. Surprisingly few strongly disagreed, which surprised me. People often told me stories about their parents coming to Australia, their friends having visa problems with for partners or children, someone they knew who had been a refugee, immigrant, a person seeking asylum.
‘What can I do?’ I was asked often and earnestly. It was not a rhetorical question but I had no answer.
‘Something,’ I said. I say. ‘Do something.’
One day out front of the Convention Centre during SupaNova a security guard ordered me away, saying he had been a guard on Manus Island. Chilled at the thought, I pointed to the dozens of people sitting or standing on the steps in costume and refused. More security guards were summoned. I was told that I had to get off the steps because they said so. It didn’t matter if other people were there. Intimidated, humiliated, uncertain of my rights I went to the taxi rank opposite and for the first time, held the sign defiantly above my head, facing the steps. People coming streaming the steps stared and pointed and came to ask me what I was doing. I realised I was far more visible than when I had sat modestly on the step with the sign resting on the ground.
Since then, I protest standing, holding the sign over my head. In the beginning my arms trembled. Sometimes with fatigue, sometimes with fear. I don’t listen to music. I stay focused. I think about the refugees and any new information I have learned, how it fits with the other things I know. I compose the thoughts I will post that night, along with my proof of life picture.
The hour I stand is often eventful in small vivid ways. I am a magnet for crazy and angry and sad. Often refugees on temporary visa come to thank me and say they dare not stand with me because they might be deported. One night a young man sniffing a can of what seemed to be underarm deodorant stared at me with dead strange eyes. I can still smell the horrible sweetness of the stuff bubbling down his arm.
The day before Christmas Eve, I stood in the Queens Street Mall, as I had done before. My sign asked people to think about the refugees, some children about to spend their fourth Christmas on Manus Island or Nauru. Two security guards ordered me to leave. I refused. I was doing none of the things listed in the bylaw they were citing. The security men fined me anyway, then called the police to remove me. The police came and threatened me with arrest if I refused to go. They pointed out that I would not be arrested for disobeying the bylaw but for refusing to obey the police – this was a different and more serious charge. Unsure of my rights and due to fly out of the country the next day to spend Christmas with my daughter and partner, I did not dare to let them arrest me, though I despised myself for not standing my ground.
But I did not pay the fine and notified the Council of my intention to contest the charge. Recently, I went to court for what is called a Mention. That is, the charge is read out by a judge and I say not guilty. Then I am given a date for the real court case. That case will come up in late July.
Sometimes when I stand, I feel lonely and the words of those well-meaning friends who doubt the value of what I am doing weigh me down. Yet there is never a day or night I stand, when I don’t have people tell me they agree. More importantly. standing stops me feeling that sick, helpless hopelessness I once felt. I had always felt myself to be a bit of a coward, but after all these months I know that although I am often nervous or afraid, I can make myself brave.
I have discovered, too, that it is not I who am confronted by all those people coming towards me. Theyare confronted by me. And it is not I who look away.
I have read so much in the faces that pass that I will use as a writer. And I know that whatever it is that makes me a writer, makes me write the things I write, comes from the same part of me that is outraged at the injustices being authorised by our politicians for the sake of votes, and accepted by Australians so frightened of everything that is not them.
But the most important thing I have learned is that there is hope. Because in standing, I am hope. And I am not alone.
John left at night to walk all the way through the darkness and find a way to the fishing port town of Agia Pelagia by morning, when the boat was to arrive. He said an inglorious goodbye at the house to whoever in his family was there to see him off. His siblings had already left to work in the fields, and hadn’t acknowledged his leaving. He remembered it vividly, the emptiness in departing.
‘My heart was in Kýthira, but my head told me otherwise.’
He was a teenager and the year was 1938. His beloved sister had been married off to a man 25 years her senior, and John was pulled out of school to work the land to help pay for her dowry. His future on the Greek island was as a farmer, but he wanted more; the freedom to decide his own fate. His father had an eldest son and a youngest one, so John was free to leave. His mother felt his absence. She let a part of herself go, and was never to see him again.
‘I loved my mother very much. I forget what she looked like.’
He travelled across the island; up hills, through bush and over rocks, awake in the cold, as the first of his family to leave it. The pride, the shame, the excitement, the burden.
‘I had second thoughts about leaving. I was scared. The first night on the water I cried, secretly, and wept so for a few more nights after.’
He told me the story of leaving Greece for Australia more than any other one he liked to repeat. Maria, his wife, called out from their kitchen and corrected him. She was peeling a fresh batch of potatoes, preparing a recipe of old, the aromas taking them back to their homeland; fresh oregano and basil from their backyard, coated in olive oil, homemade sauce for the meat and pasta, with creamy béchamel on top to hold it together. All done with handheld measurements. And then big ripe figs for dessert.
‘Όχι, Γιάννη! No, John! You’re forgetting an important part.’
They spoke their own language, a mixture of two.
‘You went to Collarenebri before you bought the dry ice business in Narrabri, με τούς Πελοποννήσιοι, with the Peloponnesians.’
‘Ναί, Yes, we sold ice cream out of a car,’ he said to me with pride.
‘But there were Kytherians already there with lower prices, so your Pappou had to sell and go to the city. Isn’t that the truth?’
‘Yes, Maria μου.’
Μου in Greek means ‘my’. It’s an affectionate term you tag on to the end of a name. My person. My people.
In these triangular conversations, John would respond to Yiayia while looking at me and smiling with his characteristic grin and glint in his eyes. This story always stood out because of his hurt, which was undying. Happier memories blended into each other, but the image of him as a teenager standing alone in his suit, his life packed into a case, unsure of the journey ahead, leaving everything he had known behind, and soon to enter a world foreign to him—not one he had seen on a television screen, but a city of buildings, business, cars and chaos—was seared into the migrant’s consciousness.
He left Greece when he was 19, made it to 93, and never forgot the details of the experience he had leaving home.
‘They were hard years. My early ζωή, life, in Australia was like walking from Kapsali, in the south, to Agia Pelagia in the north, and back, on my knees.’
Kythera, the island where he was born, is known for its difficult terrain, with thorny bushes lining the path he took to collect produce for his family; traversing a rocky landscape and descending dangerous cliffs. He was tasked to scrape salt off rocks near the sea, and cart it back for his mother to cook. He claimed it was the hardest job he ever did in life.
‘As hard as it was then, there were times εδώ in Αυστραλία, here in Australia, when I thought to myself I had to go back to Greece to survive.’
He decided against returning, and was glad he did, but those decisions weren’t without guilt. The dichotomy of migration is that one is caught somewhere in between the home they leave and the place they try to integrate into; feeling neither welcomed in the new country, nor embraced by the one they left. It’s a middle-ground of sorts. No man’s land. Limbo.
‘After spending 28 days on a cargo ship, I arrived in Sydney where I knew no one. I met some Έλληνες, Greeks, at the port, and they hung a sign around my neck like I was cattle, and put me on a train. I couldn’t speak English, but I was told it wasn’t good to speak Greek in front of anyone.’
‘So, I didn’t speak.’
Someone waited for him at a stop and took him to a shop where he was to clean dishes and scrub the walls and floors, live in a small room above, and sleep on a thin mattress squashed into the corner after an 18-hour work day. It was the price he had to pay for being newly-arrived, he said. Young, fresh and malleable.
We now call them refugees.
‘But I got through it.’
He would add a positive light to the recounting of his experience, as if burdening his audience with negativity would be too heavy for them to bear. That he was forever grateful to his new country, connected to his old one, and proud of overcoming the hardships. But trauma leaves damaged roots that grow inward.
‘They would get me to do all the jobs they didn’t want to do. They would kick the mattress to wake me if they thought I was being lazy. They called me ‘dog’, a lot.’
Outside of the shop he was referred to as a ‘Dago’.
‘I moved on to be a waiter. I wanted to interact with customers to learn English. I remember once a few co-workers heated a plate I was to serve without telling me, and I burnt my hands.’
He held them up and showed me his palms. I saw the creases as rings of an old oak tree, weary with age.
‘I can still hear them laughing. My boss there told me that the worker has to follow the boss like the bull’s balls follow the bull.’
He would nod diligently.
‘I wrote letters back στην Ελλάδα, to Greece, and sent my parents some of the λεφτά, money, that I was saving. It didn’t grow on trees in Australia, as my family thought.’
The geographical distance to Greece didn’t sever the ties he felt to his family, although it pained him to learn that his mother never saw the money he sent. She died alone in a stable next to the family home, years after his father passed. It was a way of quarantining her tuberculosis. John never forgave them.
‘I wasn’t there to be with her.’
We forget what they leave behind.
‘Having children was the best experience of my life.’
When Maria was in labour with their first child, John was so anxious about the process, that the hospital staff told him to wait outside the delivery room. He was a nuisance. However, he couldn’t cope not being with his wife, so he found a way back in; leaving the hospital building and climbing up through the room’s window.
‘When the nurse found me, I got in trouble. She told me I had upset her, the mother and our unborn child. And then Maria gave birth, and I can’t describe the joy when I saw our family grow.’
Maria laughed from behind his chair and waved her hand, accentuating how much more of a distraction he was in the delivery room than help. In their small house in Kingsgrove, they took me back in time. Playing off each other, and placing a path that led to me.
‘I raised my family in Australia to be Έλληνες, Greek, and Australian at the same time. I wanted them to learn English, better than I could. They went to Καθολικά σχολεία, Catholic schools, but we also attended Greek Orthodox Church. They had Greek lessons which they hated, Greek dancing, Greek friends, and we ate Greek φαγητο, food.’
It was important for him that he didn’t lose grasp of his culture, and that all the feelings of betrayal he had harboured after moving away from Greece could be suppressed if he passed on the values from his homeland to his children. Forced to assimilate, the migrant holds close to what is feared will be lost.
‘We didn’t have many relatives here, so we turned friends into family.’
That explains why generations later, everyone is either an aunty, uncle or cousin.
‘People already here didn’t like that we had come. They were angry that we were taking the jobs that belonged to them.’
To feel that entitled.
‘I wanted to tell them that somebody was here before they were.’
John protected his family in his new country by recreating elements of his old one, passing on the values he was taught, teaching his children its history, sharing stories of his youth, and details about his parents and family. Outside the house they had to try to look like they were Australian.
‘Australia is very multicultural now. It’s a more accepting country.’
‘I’m glad my grandchildren don’t experience the racism I did.’
They don’t. But others do.
‘…For those who’ve come across the sea,
We’ve boundless plains to share…’
No one knows the second verse.
Each year, from as far back as I can remember, we celebrated Pappou’s birthday on two different dates. One in March and the other in June, which meant that keeping track of his age was difficult. He wasn’t afforded the luxury of a birth certificate.
‘I didn’t have any papers.’
He would say that the local priest was a known drunk, and so after the baptism of babies in the village, he would randomly select dates of the month he thought suited the child. It wasn’t exact, but it was their style. Something foreign to what we are used to in Australia in this new century. He also claimed to be a year older than what we thought he was. The day after his 90th birthday, for example, he would tell us he was closing in on 91, and therefore that was considered his age. It was hard to argue against his reasoning. We came from different worlds.
‘That’s how my mother celebrated our birthdays.’
He paused, remembering her.
‘I think she would have liked to come here.’
John got word of her death weeks after it happened. No phone call. A letter. Words to tell him of his loss, but nothing in his new life would change.
‘I’ll never forgive myself for not being there.’
During the Depression, when there was little of anything on the island, his mother would gather whatever produce she could in her home and cook it for the other children in the village, knowing how tough many had it. Their house was in a raised section of the village, so when she put up washed white sheets on the line, it was known as a signal to all to come and eat what she had made.
‘From her, I learnt to give my παιδιά, kids, the life I didn’t have.’
The most important thing for John was educating his children.
‘I was pulled out of school to work the land when I was in third class.’
As if the right to education didn’t belong to him. Their family was too poor.
‘I once overheard my father say, “Γιάννηs, John, wasn’t very smart anyway”.’
Together, Maria and John worked their milk bar every day of the week to send their children to school. It was their ambition to provide a better start in life for the next generation that kept them going, fighting against the inequality, the hardships and the endless working days. It affected their health and they both suffered, silently.
‘My son was bullied. My daughter also. He was spat on and hit. The teachers didn’t listen to us when we told them.’
They were different.
‘He was always the top of the class, my son, but would be sent outside for answering too many questions, or was told to keep quiet. It wasn’t easy for us. In the neighbourhood, we would have our fruit stolen off trees. In our shop, people would sometimes trash the shelves and tell us to go back home. We hid our tears under the counter.’
And when he first arrived in Australia, it wasn’t the established Australians who were most cruel to him.
‘The Έλληνες, Greeks, I worked for sometimes treated me worse. They wanted me to experience the hardships they faced when they came.’
There is a saying for how one migrant treats the next: They closed the door behind them.
From the age of 40, Maria suffered from rheumatoid arthritis—an autoimmune disorder where the body mistakenly attacks itself. It was debilitating, chronic pain crippling her, damaging her heart, her hands and mobility; but it could never dampen her high spirits. John was her primary carer up until his death; often cooking, cleaning, thinking for her, worrying about her; not adhering to the gender stereotypes of the migrant family.
Before John passed, he spoke about dying in a candid and philosophical way, making the transition easier for those who loved him. That he had outlived his purpose and over-stayed his welcome in this life, that his time had come to move on and be part of the next phase.
‘Ο ήλιος βασιλεύε.’ The sun is setting.
He spoke about wanting to be invited to walk through heaven’s door, welcomed and accepted. To see his mother and father, and wait for his wife.
‘I want to be on the right side of God,’ he would say.
He considered his life a complete one. He left home and journeyed into the unknown on a boat, entered a country where he knew no one, couldn’t communicate verbally, and wasn’t welcomed. He stayed long enough to build a life for his family, to love them equally, to give them everything he could and watch them grow, so that a descendent is here documenting his journey.
I, his grandchild, never had a door to bash through. Nothing was locked out. Because of my grandparents and what they endured, opportunities denied to them weren’t denied to me. But they are being denied to people like them, now, from different countries, different religions, different complexions, to those who wear clothes different from yours, who speak languages you don’t understand like Γιάννηs, John, did, and share his same desire. A life for their family.
‘For you, my child.’
He considered it a miracle, reflecting on the last year of his life as if he knew his time had come to its close, that a person from a small island could make the transition to a foreign country, to better his life and that of his family’s. Today, families seek solace from war, from death and from a life of fear. They want a chance at the life John built, the chance at doing something similar. They may choose to wear headscarves or not, pray to someone who others don’t, have beards or braids or be bald. They may look, sound or feel different. But they all want what we have: what John gave. They want love and life. They aren’t ‘others’. They are John, and John’s friends and cousins and extended family. They are your grandparents or parents. They are you, me and both. They are humans.
‘We are all God’s children,’ he would say.
I knew John. I listened to his story, heard his teachings and loved the person he was. I admired the values he lived by. To love all people. To be kind. To give. To share. I speak for John now, and know he would want the door he pushed through to remain open. To grant shelter to the endangered. To grant life to children and adults seeking safety. He travelled the world for that right. He lived a life for it.
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.
Review by Abby Claridge.
Only a woman can know the visceral desire to end a pregnancy she is experiencing against her will – no man… can ever understand this.’
My biggest struggle with reviewing this text was coming to terms with the fact that I would never be able to capture the profound effect this text will have on each of its readers.
Autonomy asks women, who feel they have ‘enough’ rights, to open their minds. It asks women, who do not have these rights, to feel strength in numbers. It asks men, who have never considered their reproductive privileges, to listen to the woman who is fighting for a voice.
As women we allow so much to be left unsaid and so many injustices pass us by. We are all constant representatives of our sex and this responsibility can feel like a constant weight on each of our shoulders.
In Autonomy Kathy D’arcy gathers the voices of so many women in a discussion they are so often excluded from; the sexualization of women and the restrictions of their reproductive rights.
D’arcy’s careful organisation of the structure of the book allows the reader to embrace each woman’s voice. She so clearly understands that, for some messages, a thousand words are required. While, for others, strength lies in the silence between the lines of a poem.
Autonomy expresses female emotion in a visceral way and D’arcy achieves this is through the contrast of the various writers’ styles. D’arcy exemplifies a strong understanding of the human capacity for emotion, as she juxtaposes the true recount of the woman travelling to London for an abortion, to the dystopian short story of a woman who is treated as a walking uterus.
In fact, much of Autonomy has taken the social fascination on dystopian tragedies like The Handmaid’s Tale and used this captivation to shine a light on the abuse of woman’s reproductive rights across the globe. D’arcy proves that she understands the strength in creating fear in your readership; as ‘fear’ is essentially a cautious awareness of the future.
Autonomy is both a heartbreaking and essential conversation about what a woman is capable of, versus what she should endure. It reminds its readers of the weight of legislation in Ireland and the strength of the women pushing against it each day.
D’arcy’s text pleads for empathy, understanding and progress. As one of the poem’s enclosed reads,- ‘Don’t make her wait, don’t make that choice for any girl; This is her life, and her world…Treat her as if she were your own little girl. Give her the choice.’
By Keren Heenan
My sister’s only been back a week. We sit in the kitchen and I listen to her talk about the city; the street, the hospital where she’d worked, now hidden under rubble.
‘There’s an old man,’ she says, ‘his house just a shell now. But he still plays music, I heard him on the day I left. Nothing there but bombed-out windows and shattered walls, a bed covered in debris. I saw him sitting on the bed, listening to an old gramophone, his house just … a mess.’
I put the mug of tea in front of her and pour my own. Blueberry muffins sit warm from the oven, untouched on the plate. The cat leaps onto my lap, all soft warm fur. I rest my hand, feeling her asthmatic purr.
‘Everyone running blindly, sirens, the noise,’ her hands cover her ears. ‘The smell of blood and dust, I don’t know how to lose that.’ She tilts forward, fingers splayed, but she doesn’t cry. I hold onto the warm roundness of the mug of tea and wait. Outside, the children’s voices rise in unison, a celebration of some sort—a goal kicked, or heroically defended. Murmured fragments of their banter drift across the garden.
‘One woman,’ my sister says, ‘she was barefoot, blood from a wound on her head. She wore something yellow, and the blood … it made a pattern … like a river across her chest.’ Her voice cracks. ‘I tried to get to her, over the broken concrete and rubble and I couldn’t … I couldn’t get there.’
We’re holding the mugs, but we’re not drinking the tea. The clock ticks like a metronome, squeezing the rhythm of the day into the gaps between her words. She rocks gently back and forwards on the chair. The old dog shakes her head in the corner, collar slapping.
In the next room the baby stirs. I rest my hand on my sister’s then go and lift him out of his warm nest and bring him back to the table. He’s all sweaty hair and red cheeks from teething. He looks at her and his mouth breaks into a red-gummed grin. The corner of her mouth lifts. The heater flicks off and I place the baby on her lap. ‘Here, I’ll have to go and clean the filter.’
When I get back she’s holding him close to her chest, one hand on his back. ‘The woman,’ she whispers. ‘The woman in yellow, she had a baby strapped to her back,’ and she’s looking across the room to the wall, and beyond. The old dog rises from her bed, stretching. Makes her way across to the table and rests her head on my sister’s knee.
Outside, the sing-song calls of the children rise and fall, and my sister’s hand makes slow circles on the baby’s back.
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.
We live in an age of unrest. We hate, we fight, we kill, and for what? Don’t we all want the same thing? A chance for freedom, peace, and equality? A place to call our own, where our children are safe, our government is transparent, and our society is treated fairly? Yet, somehow, our search for just that leaves many people displaced in the world, and unclaimed by any nation—Hosam and his family are no different.
The room where Hosam now lives with his wife and three young children is small and reasonably nondescript. It contains five single beds that are squashed together, a small sofa, and a dining table, but it is probably smaller than most bedrooms. It is devoid of any personal belongings because the family has nothing except for one or two toys for the children to play with—donations picked up along the way. For Hosam and his family, however, this is their new home, or at least they hope it will be. A home in a country that is not their own—a place where they must learn a new language, a new culture, a new way of life—but this is of little consequence in comparison to their journey to get here.
Hosam is a Syrian refugee, and his current situation is not how he imagined his life would pan out. Graduating from a college for veterinary science in 2004, Hosam, then 25, had his whole life ahead of him. He was young and well-educated, but the political climate in Syria was beginning to change. Ultimately, he found it difficult to find employment. His small city of Jarabulus, located on the Turkish-Syrian border and with only 11,570 residents, had limited employment opportunities. Hosam quickly noticed the government’s economic failings which, he says, led to corruption as well as favouritism within the political regime. Unlike many, he was eventually lucky enough to find employment in a small veterinary clinic. However, the knowledge of corruption, severe economic disparity and political favouritism was never far from his mind, and it was this knowledge that would ultimately compel him, and many others, to take matters into their own hands seven years later.
After marrying in December 2007, Hosam and his new wife desperately wanted to start a family of their own. With the addition of their first child in 2009, and the growing political unrest in Syria, he and his wife became more concerned about the future of their country. In 2011, shortly before the birth of their second child, he joined ranks with protestors in an attempt to improve the crumbling political condition the country was experiencing. While most reports document a change in the nature of the civil protests from political to religious, Hosam maintains that, for him, there was nothing religious about it; his motives lay purely in the desire to make his country a better place for his children. Before long, the demonstrations turned violent as the government, now using military forces to control the masses, became increasingly uncomfortable with the protestors’ growing support. The military was subsequently placed in a position of governing power which was climactically met with dissidence, with little effect. Groups of protestors were disbanded. Those considered instigators by the government—Hosam included—became fearful of unfair punishment as a result, and the situation continued to deteriorate.
In 2013, things took a turn for the worse. Islamic military radicals, now known as the Islamic Front, established a 45,000-strong alliance exclusively aimed at overthrowing the existing government and founding an Islamic State. It was clear to Hosam that the face of Syria was changing forever.
Having lost his job at the veterinary clinic because of the negative attention his involvement in the demonstrations was bringing, Hosam struggled to once again find employment to support his family. In June 2013, just in time for the birth of his youngest child, he secured a position with a non-profit organisation (NGO) that promoted conflict resolution and harmonious living—his dedication to making his country a better place to live never wavering. Then, at the beginning of January 2014, ISIS arrived on his doorstep, and everything he had been working for was lost.
In what Hosam describes as a full land assault, ISIS captured Jarabulus with no warning. For 17 days, in the middle of winter, the town fell under siege. Unable to leave the house for fear of being killed, the family did the best it could to stay out of sight. However, with supplies running low, Hosam had no choice but to leave the safety of his home and find supplies for his increasingly hungry and freezing family.
As the siege continued, aide groups were forced to retreat from the area, leaving residents in the city to fend for themselves. With round-the-clock bombing and gunfire, it was hard for Hosam and his family to believe that there would be a future—for themselves or their country—but refused to give up. Leaving the shelter of his house, he was confronted with the harrowing scene of death, destruction, and despair just outside his door. With machine gun-wielding ISIS soldiers patrolling the streets, he was forced to stay on the periphery and out of sight. The bodies of those who had already been captured and killed littered the streets. Hosam only left the house on two occasions, but realised his luck in coming home alive on the 15th consecutive day of the siege. His father-in-law chanced the short distance to see them but never made it; he was killed by a car bomb outside Hosam’s house infront of his grandson (Hosam’s son), then three years old, who happened to be peeking out the window.
It is easy to understand the remorse on Hosam’s face as he thinks about what happened—not just for the loss of his father-in-law but also for his inability to shield his son from such a horrible scene. To this day, he says his son still suffers psychologically. Although the situation is getting better, the boy often wakes in the night crying from nightmares in which he relives that fateful day, the culmination of events that led Hosam and his wife to plot their escape.
With Jarabulus positioned just one kilometre from the Turkish border, it may seem as though escape would have been easy. ISIS’s 17-day siege was now over and there was less movement within the area. However, the border was still heavily patrolled, so Hosam did what many Syrians have been forced to do and paid a trafficker to ensure passage into Turkey.
In hushed voices and hidden away from prying eyes, Hosam contacted an importer/exporter whose property lay on the north side of Jarabulus along the border. He would travel alone into Turkey to first secure the safety and finances required to ensure the future passage of his wife and children later, but he was becoming increasingly restless waiting for his own departure. ISIS no longer exclusively occupied the town but continued to capture NGO workers in the surrounding cities, and moved closer every day. Then, one night, under the cover of darkness, Hosam paid the trafficker a visit.
Approaching a house with trepidation, Hosam knocked quietly on the door and received no response. The house was in darkness, but there, in the distance, he could see the border and, along with it, the freedom he had desired for what now seemed like an eternity. So he ran, darting forwards, heart pounding in his chest, eyes fixed on nothing more than the nearing invisible line that separated his present from his future. Just metres from safety, a flash of light suddenly threw Hosam to the ground. It was a hail of gunfire from an unknown assailant. Rolling down a slight embankment and into a ditch, it took him seconds to feel the searing pain spreading up and down the left side of his body. He had been shot with 13 bullets from a pump-action shotgun. He lay quietly in that ditch in darkness for 45 minutes, unaware of the extent of his injuries. As blood slowly flowed from his body, he thought he would die in the shallow grave. As the darkness enveloped him further, salvation came in the face of the trafficker, walking along the ridge on his way home. The man carried Hosam’s blood-soaked body back to the house and contacted Hosam’s cousin.
Severely injured but undefeated, Hosam spent the next 20 days on crutches with only three of the 13 bullets removed. He used his recuperation well and planned his second attempt across the border. Successful, Hosam found himself alone in Turkey. His money was dwindling and he had a family back in Syria to support. He made the strategic move of obtaining work with an NGO that sent its workers in and out of Syria daily basis for safety, an opportunity for Hosam to try and connect with his family and secure passage into Turkey. But, again, he found himself encountering unforeseeable difficulties.
In 2015, ISIS once again arrived on the outskirts of Jarabulus. Hosam searched frantically for a trafficker to escort them across the border, but Turkey was closing its borders to refugees. The family had to travel over 100 kilometres through war-torn country to a small section of the border still allowing people through. The trip was dangerous, and time was running out, but the family had little choice. Hosam waited with bated breath for news of the crossing as his family’s fate lay in the hands of a stranger and, after a few days, they were eventually reunited. The triumph was short-lived, as the road ahead was long and arduous. At this stage, Turkey was not the source of liberation many refugees hoped for, and Hosam had strong concerns that the government would send them back to Syria.
He had by now saved US $2,050 and, after searching for days, he found the owner of a small rubber-based boat willing to take him and his family, and around 50 other refugees, to the Greek Islands, but it would cost him US $1,700 in a three-and-a-half-hour journey. Arriving at the docks in the middle of the night, he realised just how overcrowded the boat was. Intended for a maximum of 30 people, the boat noticeably buckled under added weight—almost double capacity. Hosam inquired about life jackets, and paid an additional US $100 for five life jackets in a harrowing journey.
The boat arrived on the Greek Island of Lesbos on 14 December 2015. Tired and hungry, new arrivals were pushed like sardines onto buses and taken to a hall to be registered. By this stage, Hosam made the decision to head to Germany because he felt the country had a more progressive view on immigration and integration. For the next two weeks, the family was herded from country to country with hundreds, if not thousands, of other refugees, having to be registered in every country entered even if it was not the final destination. Many countries treated them like terrorists. For the first time in his life, Hosam was openly ridiculed for his religion without provocation. From Greece to Germany, he used up his money on transport and buying exorbitantly priced food from private vendors who set up shop in front of refugee processing centres. The family arrived in southeast Germany on Christmas Day after 11 days of travel through Europe with little sleep. Germany gave them hope when they thought hope was lost.
However, almost two years on, Hosam and his family are still displaced, their future a waiting game. Due to the sheer number of refugees that have arrived in Germany over the past two years, visa processing times are severely delayed. For the refugees, this is an ambiguous ending to a long ordeal. With little information from their social worker about processing times, Hosam and his family must now await their fate—to be decided by nameless and faceless people and in accordance with laws that were not implemented with mass migration in mind. Until a decision happens, Hosam and his wife can only remain thankful and hopeful that the family can begin to heal the scars of war—both visible and invisible.
Story behind the story
This article was written based on interviews with a Syrian refugee, Hosam (the name has been changed for safety reasons), who travelled from Syria to Germany in 2015 with his family. As millions of people have experienced similar ordeals in the face of war, I felt it imperative to document his journey and the ongoing difficulties many refugees continue to experience years later.
Michelle Cahill is a Sydney poet. Her recent collection The Herring Lass was published by Arc in the UK. She has lived in England, Australia and Kenya. Letter to Pessoa won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for New Writing and was shortlisted in the Steele Rudd Queensland Literary Awards for Short Story. Her honours include the Hilary Mantel International Short Story Prize, the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Prize shortlist and the Arts Queensland Val Vallis Award. Vishvarūpa was shortlisted in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.
I was on the boat
now I am on the road.
There wasn’t safety in my land
and nothing free was in my hand
I couldn’t walk freely and I couldn’t talk fairly
so I seek the place where there is peace on earth
I found the place and I landed the boat.
and I thought I was on the right road
In the dark, each other’s face we can’t see… we were loaded,
a big boat like they were loading death fish.
Nice smells that brought sick to my tummy and threw out what I had lastly with my family,
it’s sad because I mixed the love food with salty water.
I saw the bright moon on the dark sky…
there were stars sparkling with the queen
and stars trying to fall in love with the moon
My heart full of hope…
my mind full of plans,
but I am still scared…
and my body is shaking for the higher waves
Darkness was slowly falling, sexy with brightness and trying to bring the baby blue sky
my eye winks and the winks feel shy to see the brightness,
my lips bring a cute smile,
my deep breath mixes with higher waves and storms.
I saw many others being the same on the boat…
could see everyone’s eyes carrying millions of dreams
and I could feel the pain in hearts for what we missed already
and we could still be laughing, still enjoying super-high waves with shaking bodies,
each day the same as usual…
Rain knows we can’t have a shower with good water
so rain pours, sometimes in the day, most of the time midnight, with amazing lightning and thunderstorms but we can’t say no and we can’t hide
It needs to shower… yes nature
was forced to have that shower… if it comes anytime.
It’s funny we all want to fall to knee to take a bath,
yes, slowly the rain’s stopping, it bathes us and bodies shake with cold as wind cuddles…
We started drying with what we have, wet clothes
yes, then the sun will start to hug us softly, to kiss our bodies.
When he comes in the middle of the day… he will start to love us too much, like real Australians…
sometimes the sun does unconditional love
makes us more tired… with sun baths.
No place to hide, even if we hide, sun or rain will find us,
someone had white skin that’s gone black
Mine’s gone more black.
Yes, 22 days… Beauty mixed with a dangerous road on the boat journey,
each one has a different experience.
But we are all still offered the life in the deep water to see freedom!
yes finally, we arrived in the beautiful land called the Cocos Island, the beauty of Australia.
My deep breath mixed with the wind and smoothly caressed my black skin, it still reminds my mind…
lots of hopes and dreams and laughing smiles from heart and high fives, tears with joy.
It’s all I thought: I am going to plant my dream seeds in this land and make a beautiful garden
suddenly I was stripped inside-out and my name was changed to a number,
And I saw inhuman treatment once again.
In the humanity land
where I thought… to plant my life trees.
I never thought that dream seeds would be taken and thrown so far from me—yes
it’s all gone and I was super-tired, more than in my land… and more than
my risky adventure moving
Quickly… In a deep ditch
I am surrounded by some kind of sickness
It’s called suffering with mental illness
yes… held in the mental cage… and I do war… like a bird singing and crying for flying with free wings… And biting the cage steals.
Yes, finally my mental cage was open… but my legs are still tight with mental laws I call your unfair policy
but they say it’s asylum seekers policy.
But I am still mentally sick,
still I am trying to get out of that mental war without giving up
I wish and hope to see an ending with peace.
Five years ago I was on the boat to seek peace – now I am on the road to find… peace that I missed…
I was on the boat
now I am on the road.
Artwork by Jackie Benney. Published with permission of the artist.
By Reece Pye
He got on at Dandenong, of all places. I didn’t pay him much mind at first; I was already too deep in The Cider House Ruleswhen he came and sat next to me. He seemed just like any other passenger, except in the way he sat with his back facing me, his head bowed, playing some game on his phone. Him in his filthy black tracks and his equally filthy grey hoodie, which at the time seemed appropriate enough, and only more so in retrospect.
While he wasn’t wearing earphones, he still increased the volume all the way up, attracting the attention of several nearby passengers, who, like me, were trying to discern what the countless explosions, crashes, and laser sounds were all about. Like me, they probably didn’t have a clue, because to them it was just another one of those innocuous, mind-numbing video games best suited to a child.Not a grown man on the train—even if he did get on at Dandenong and dressed like a twelve-year-old wannabe gangster.
Before long everyone, including myself, stopped taking notice of him, and I returned to my book, wondering how much harder it was now going to be trying to digest the dense, mostly exquisite prose of John Irving while a mobile version of World War III was apparently taking place right beside me. Though I did succeed in reading for about another five minutes without letting the ruckus deter me completely, it was around the scene where Melony shows Homer the portrait of an obese woman performing fellatio on a donkey that I—along with the same small group of passengers, as well as a few new onlookers—was drawn to the man in the stained tracks and hoodie once more.
‘Effin talk to me again, ya old bitch!’ he cursed into his phone, and was then rather quick to add, ‘I’ll pour a bottle a Tabasco sauce in yer ass. How does that sound?’
As he said this, I turned away from my book and listened both keenly and anxiously for a reply from the person who was supposedly going to have a bottle of Tabasco sauce poured down their anal cavity, but none came; just more of the exceptionally loud explosions from within the game world. As I returned to my book, the train slowed down and approached the next station. Once it came to a full halt, the man immediately stood up and walked over to the opening doors, as another dozen or so passengers began flooding into the carriage. All of them had no choice but to brush past either side of the hooded man as he leaned his head out. Not so that he could exit, but so he could glance down either side of the platform, whether it be at someone, something, or maybe nothing at all.
In the short time he abandoned his seat, a young Asian woman in a black silk dress took his place next to me. I inspected her through the corner of my eye. I was suddenly conscious of my increasing heartbeat, which, in my experience, is nothing but a physical acknowledgment that the equilibrium in which I live most of my life is about to be compromised.
‘Oi, I was sittin’ there,’ a voice said. Turning my head slightly to the right, I could see him now making his way back toward the seat. Towards me.
The girl quickly stood up as the train started off again and stepped aside as he neared her. But in the eyes of the hooded man, she had already committed a crime that couldn’t be rectified with a meek apology.
‘See that?’ he said, pointing down at a knapsack that was protruding from under the far edge of the seat, and that I had failed to notice until now. ‘What does that look like?’
‘Sorry,’ the girl said, and despite there being not a hint of resentment in her apology, her voice alone was enough of a trigger.
‘You’re sorry?’ he spat, as he reclaimed his seat. The girl leaned back against the carriage wall behind me, gazing sheepishly down at the floor. Still, this wasn’t enough to deter the hooded man.
‘It’s civil rights, bitch,’ he declared, the pitch of his voice loud enough that most in the carriage now diverted their eyes toward him—although I was sure that some of them were looking directly at me. ‘Do what ya told or go to jail. Your choice.’
This was where the girl decided it was time to respond. ‘Oh, shut up,’ she said.
‘What?’ I could feel him shift his entire bodyweight around on the seat as he turned to face her. ‘You’re a woman and your tellin me to shut up, are ya?’
This warranted disgruntled groans from some of the nearby passengers.
‘Yes,’ the girl replied.
‘Mate, just shut it,’ called out a voice from the other side of the carriage.
The hooded man immediately whirled his head around. ‘Huh?’
‘Shut it,’ the voice repeated.
‘What?’ He stood up, throwing back his hood to reveal a bare, dome-shaped skull that glimmered white in the light cast by the panels overhead, though his skin was unequivocally dark. ‘What was that?’ And when there was no immediate answer, he raised his voice. ‘Speak up, ya mutt!’
From the other side of the carriage, a man rose from behind the cover of several dozen bewildered faces. He was broader, taller, and his bulging tattooed arms seemed to hover on either side of him like smaller henchmen. ‘Keep goin, bro,’ he said.
He was perhaps indigenous, if he was anything, and at first glance appeared, like the now unhooded fiend, to be on the cusp of baldness himself.
‘Yeah?’ said the hooded man, taking a step forward. ‘Ya wanna go, huh?’
‘I’m Aboriginal,’ the hooded man said in a most guttural voice as he took another step forward, beckoning his opponent. ‘The heck are you, goon?’
‘I’m Maori.’ The Maori started toward the hooded man then, people on both sides of the carriage pulling their outstretched legs inward as the challenger pushed his way forth. As he drew closer, the Aboriginal chose to hold his ground beside me, removing his hoodie and flinging it to the ground as the Maori came within striking distance of him.
‘Let’s go!’ the Aboriginal bawled, and lunged forward, driving the top of his head into the Maori’s chest, screaming as he tried to force him back. Why he thought this would be an effective strategy I can’t say, but it wasn’t long before the Maori tossed him aside, and into one of the seats that had been vacated seconds before the clash, pinning him down as he began to unleash a succession of ferocious punches into the back of his head.
With his opponent unable to retaliate in any way—other than to scream his rage into the patterned seat – the Maori let him go and retreated several steps, clearly in anticipation of Round Two. It was at this point the train stopped at the next station. The Aboriginal launched himself at the Maori again, using the same hopeless method as before, and a handful of people fled the carriage. If I still didn’t have such a long way to go, I might have done so myself; though at this point my sole concern was whether I should take out my phone and begin recording behind the cover of my weathered paperback.
I barely had enough time to slip my hand down my pocket before the Maori held his wailing opponent back by the throat, and cracked him in the nose with a quick, hard jab. The Aboriginal tumbled backwards, landing on his back with a thud, fresh blood smeared across his lips. Though he was quick to scramble back to his feet, he didn’t make another advance; instead, he snatched his hoodie and bag, then let out a deep, animal-like roar.
‘Get the fuck out,’ the Maori said, pointing toward the open doors.
But his opponent remained still, glancing back and forth along the carriage. ‘I swear, it’s gonna be effin World War Three soon!’ he cried, eyes swimming, his bloodstained teeth laid bare as he gnashed them together. ‘And youse are all gonna be dead. All of youse effin dead goons! ALL OF YOUSE!’ Then he turned and hurried out into the open, just as several officers rushed toward him from the other side of the platform.
As the train carried on its inevitable journey toward the city, several people glanced out the window as the Aboriginal began to scream. I watched the Maorireturn to his seat and, as the carriage gradually returned to silence, a woman took the vacant seat beside me. I was about to turn and look at her, and realised that my book had fallen shut in my lap. I picked it up and opened to the page where I left off. I don’t know if it was necessarily my intention to continue reading in that moment, it seemed that simply staring at the words was enough.
by N L King
Kim ignores her father’s voice. She scrolls down her Instagram feed and taps a witty reply to her Canadian friend, Stevie.
Kim sighs and closes her phone. Her father is in the dark lounge room watching Gardening Australia.
Tomorrow Bo will have Kim planting whatever Peter Cundall has just planted on TV. Their urban block is a tiny farm. Chooks live in the chook-house Bo built when Ma was still alive. They get eggs and sometimes meat, although Kim shudders to think of Linh and Mai in a curry. The cat, Quan pays his way too. Bo keeps score of Quan’s kills in the notebook in his shirt pocket.
‘Kim, tomorrow it’s onions.’
Kim reaches for the tray. Bo’s plate is pristine, and she wonders if he licks his plate clean to make sure not a morsel is wasted.
‘It’s dark in here, Bo.’
The blind clatters noisily as it rolls to the top. Sunlight streams in, illuminating Bo’s pained face.
‘Why, Kim? Why you not careful?’
Shrugging, Kim leaves the lounge, tray in hand. Her phone pings with a DM (direct message). Kim hopes it’s Laney from Sydney. Laney posts on Insta three times a day and Kim comments on each of them.
How’s it going?
So, so. Looks like I’ll be planting onions tomorrow.
What are you doing?
Rob and I are looking at rings.
He finally asked? Congratulations!
Thanks, Kim. I’m so happy.
Kim snaps her phone shut. It’s not that she isn’t happy for Laney, weddings just make her uncomfortable; like she’s been forgotten. How many 36-year-olds live at home? How many single, almost-virgin (her relationship with Michael ended over seven years ago) 36-year-olds live at home, look after their Dad and the family business? Mostly Kim doesn’t go into the bakery, her brother, Danh took over the business. Kim does the books. Danh inherited the family business and Kim inherited their father.
Danh lives above the bakery with his wife, Lily, and their daughters. Lily styles hair for a flock of older Vietnamese women who lean heavily on the bannister to pull themselves up the stairs. She bows at the top of the stairs and offers them iced-coffee sweetened with condensed milk.
Before Ma died seven years ago, Kim had a sex life and dreams for her own family. She wanted two little Michaels; Eurasian children with the best of Kim and Michael. After Ma died from a stroke, Bo was like a lost child. Kim left Michael and their modern three-bedroom townhouse and moved home with Bo.
She would hold Bo’s hand and steer him to the vegetable garden. When he was cold and lonely, she gave him chilli plants and coriander. Weeks passed, Michael insisted Kim return, but she couldn’t leave Bo staring out of windows with dull, empty eyes. When she discovered Gardening Australia,she moved Bo from the windows to the television.
A few months after Ma passed, Bo’s neighbour, Elena, stopped Kim in the street. Kim took home a cardboard box and showed Bo a male kitten mewing piteously. Bo reached in, pulled the kitten out, and tucked him within the folds of his flannel shirt. He kissed the top of the kitten’s head and murmured ‘Quan’. Quan brought Bo back to the land of the living, and soon outgrew his big kitten eyes and squashed up nose and became a killing machine of rodents.
After a morning digging in onions, Kim showers and leaves Bo in front of the television. He watches reruns of Escape to the Country. He likes the English countryside and dreams of green fields. He talks about apple trees and asks Kim to Google ancient varieties. Bo says the Chinese were the first to graft apple trees and he wishes Ma were alive so they could tour the world visiting orchards. Every time Kim comes home with a bag of Pink Ladies, Bo clicks his tongue and asks why she hasn’t brought him Pippins.
Kim raises her eyebrows. If Ma was alive, she and Bo would run the bakery, Danh would have a mechanics business, and Kim would still have Michael, regular sex, and dreams of two little Michaels. They would not be debating the merits of ancient apple varieties. She bangs down the apples on the kitchen counter; part of her hoping the rough handling will bruise the fruit.
After showering, Kim gives Bo lunch. She rolls up the blind carefully and reminds him to take his pills. Bo nods impatiently, his eyes don’t leave the screen. She settles in front of her laptop and runs over figures for the bakery. Danh has changed suppliers and Kim suspects they’re being swindled.
She hears Bo switch off the television, shuffle into the kitchen in his slippers and fill a glass with water. He hates pills; convinced that’s why Ma died. The screen door bangs. Bo is probably inspecting the onions and planning an orchard. He’ll limp to the back and sit with the chooks, cluck his tongue and talk nonsense.
Steve takes a playful swipe at Kim on Insta. She had posted a photo of Bo holding a shovel and Stevie asks why she makes her old Dad work? Kim’s fingers fly. She DMs Laney. Laney asks if she will fly over for the wedding and be her bridesmaid. Kim says she’s too old to be a bridesmaid.
The sky opens. Rain pours down on the tin roof. Kim purses her lips in self-satisfaction thinking about the onions. Quan meows at the back door. Sighing, Kim gets up and flicks on the kettle. Quan can wait. She sits back down with her milky coffee and hopes Bo will come in soon. She doesn’t want him catching a cold. His slippers will mess the floor and she only vacuumed yesterday. Quan keeps up a plaintive mew.
Kim switches on a light and goes over the bakery accounts, lines up numbers and then she spots it. The number that doesn’t fit. She doubts Danh and his too trusting nature.
Stretching her shoulders, Kim glances at her phone and can’t believe Bo has been in the rain for so long. She hopes he hasn’t fallen asleep with the chooks. Sometimes, he wets the bed. Could his piss affect the eggs?
Quan’s cries grow louder. Slipping into crocs, Kim moves to the back door. She peers into the rain as Quan winds his tail around her legs.
‘Bo?’ Kim calls. Then, she panics. Is Bo lying on the ground?
Running, she slides through dirt in her crocs. Stands over Bo with rain pelting down her face. Blood has pooled around his head. His body twists awkwardly. She knows he is dead before she checks his pulse.
She sinks to her knees. Rain comes down fast. The sky is an angry black. The chooks are in their house. Quan stares unblinking from the verandah. Kim cradles her father’s head and caresses his white hair. She can’t move. She sits in the downpour and cries.
Weeks later, when Bo is next to Ma at the cemetery, Kim wanders around the house. She stares out of windows, strokes Quan absentmindedly. She watches Gardening Australiaand reruns of Escape to the Country. She googles ancient varieties of apple trees and fertilises the vegetables in the back garden. Eggs pile up in the kitchen.
Kim drives past the townhouse where she lived with Michael. They sold the townhouse years ago. Kim’s share of furniture is in the garage. Bo covered it in tarps and tied it up into a neat square of Kim’s old life. Michael married his hygienist. They run a professional looking dental clinic and have two little Michaels who are blond.
Kim is empty; a hollow vessel. She welcomes grief and avoids Insta. Lily cuts her hair. Kim lets the Vietnamese ladies pat her hand and pretends to be happy with her new hairstyle.
At home, in front of the bathroom mirror she questions why she’s still alone. She shouldn’t be alone in a large house. Kim offers the house to Danh, but he says it’s easier to live above the bakery. She empties Bo’s pills into the toilet and watches them twirl before they dance into the sewer.
Days and nights merge. Kim dozes most days and prowls the house and garden with Quan at night. She records Gardening Australia.Months after Bo’s funeral, she is at the cemetery planting chilli plants and coriander at the grave site.
More time passes. Kim finds Quan as stiff as a piece of card. She buries him under the frangipani tree. She knows it’s time for the chooks to make tracks and puts a notice on Gumtree. Kim helps the young couple excitedly dismantle the chook-house Bo had built from cast-off pallets.
She flies to Sydney for Laney’s wedding, wears a too-tight, too-pink dress and swings her thick black hair over her shoulder as Laney climbs into a limousine. Kim helps her nieces with their homework and talks to Danh about upgrading the bakery ovens. She harvests onions and cries when she pulls them out of the earth. The house isn’t the same without Quan, the chooks, and Bo’s enthusiastic planting.
One Sunday afternoon, Kim eats a sandwich on the grave. Swigging at water, she looks up at the bright blue Western Australian sky. Kneeling on the ground, her bare legs warm in the sunshine, Kim digs in cherry tomato plants. Sitting back, she sighs and laughs. Her laugh catches her by surprise. She is shocked she remembers how to laugh.
She remembers Bo and Ma and their tomatoes. They fled South Vietnam in 1979 and arrived in Geraldton with thousands of other Vietnamese who fled the North Vietnamese Army and wanted new lives. Bo and Ma became tomato farmers.
Danh and Kim grew up amongst tomatoes. After school the pair helped out and Kim grew to hate tomatoes. Now she digs them in on her parents’ grave and thinks about the old days.
She reminisces about that day before market when the family spent hours packing tomatoes. Bo carefully stacked towers of crates onto his ute. Ma wiped her hands on her apron in satisfaction as Bo pulled onto the road. Danh realised Bo hadn’t fastened the back of the ute but was too late with his warning.
The crates swayed dangerously as the ute picked up speed. Ma screamed for Bo to stop. The towers toppled and tomatoes tumbled. Ma stared as tomatoes rolled tumultuously over bitumen. Kim thought Ma would cry, seeing her mother’s shoulders shake.
When Bo stepped from the ute, Ma was laughing. She laughed so hard, tears streamed down her face. Bo walked over, kissed Ma on the cheek and they rescued tomatoes together.
The memory never left Kim. Even now, if Danh or Kim mentions the ‘tomato incident’ one of them giggles, tears spilling down their face. Bo mentioned the tomatoes in his eulogy at Ma’s funeral; his admiration of her sense of humour and the ease with which she dealt with hardship. He was her greatest admirer, and she was his ray of sunshine. Kim hopes she’ll be someone’s ray of sunshine one day.
Kim’s laptop is on the kitchen bench. An enrolment page for arboriculture casts a blue-ish tinge over the room. Scent from the frangipani tree floats in through the window and a gentle breeze from the Indian Ocean blows across Kim’s home.
It was a pleasure for our journals to get an opportunity to Interview Anne Forsyth. She’s a writer who is based in Newcastle and manages ‘Girls on key’. Girls on Key hosts events in Melbourne, Newcastle and Sydney. The events started as music in 2014 and changed to poetry in 2015. They feature female and non-binary poets and raise funds for different charities such as Writing through fences who work with asylum seeker and refugee writers.
Reading the ‘Girls on Key’ website I got the impression that you are passionate about women’s issues. Is that right?
I am a feminist, so amplifying women’s voices is something that I am passionate about, as they are often trivialised, marginalised and not taken seriously in our patriarchal society. It’s not exclusively a women’s issue. It’s about equality in general, which is why I continue to provide spaces for poets that are intersectional and inclusive of trans women and non-binary poets.
What inspired you to create ‘Girls on Key’? The focus is on placing an importance on women’s stories. Is this the main focus of the organisation?
I founded Girls on Key in 2014 to create the type of gigs for my female musician friends that I couldn’t find elsewhere. It is not a group or a club, but an open night in three different cities (currently), where people can come and hear stories and poetry from women. Feminism to me has always been about whose stories are being told and whose stories are being perpetuated and the voices that are being heard. So Girls on Key poetry readings provide a great space for that to happen. I try to create an atmosphere of safety, with a collegial atmosphere where women feel comfortable sharing their own stories, whatever they may be.
- Poetry is a difficult style of writing, what tips would you give to someone who isn’t confident in their work?
I don’t think poetry is more difficult than any other art form. It can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. There is definitely a craft with a beautiful history and there are so many in-roads that offer their own unique ways to create under the banner of poetry. For example, if you are performer, you can focus on the stage craft of slam. There are visual styles, such as concrete poetry and traditional forms for those who like to geek out. Confidence as a poet comes from finding your own place within that world and not letting others define the type of work that you want to create. It’s about challenging yourself to learn your art form and to grow and put in the effort to see what you envision come to life. There are lots of mentors around and many online resources if you want to up-skill yourself in one aspect of the poetry craft. The key is finding the resources that work for your own artistic vision, especially if you are starting out. It is better to throw the rule book out in the beginning and to test your own creative boundaries than to have someone else tell you how you should be writing. It is art after all. I would recommend starting with the topics and issues that make your heart sing and writing in response to those, then worrying about the honing and polishing later. Some people are not comfortable reading in public, but that’s not essential. You can find an audience online and through print and it is not necessary to be confident on a stage.
Are there any other writers/poets you admire and influenced your writing style?
I am definitely very influenced by New Zealand poets, as that’s where my whakapapa is (genealogy) is. I had my beginnings there, as a person and as a poet. I have a couple of mentors who I meet with when I’m there, such as Riemke Ensing, Genevieve Mclean, Janet Charman and Vivienne Plumb. They have all influenced me in different ways. Vivienne’s work in particular has influenced me as she also works between fiction, poetry and script writing. One of my key interests is in the praxis and intersections between these forms.
Are there any other artistic talents you have that make your style of writing more authentic?
I’m often told that my work is lyrical and so I think having a background in music definitely influences the way I write, as much as I try to escape it. Authenticity to me is about calling a spade a spade. I don’t always do that of course, I skirt around things and obscure their origins within my work at times, for fear of scrutiny. I don’t think that’s an uncommon practice. As I’ve grown older, I’ve naturally become more fearless in owning my identity as a bisexual, white woman from New Zealand who has a strong Christian faith. So I’m starting to touch on some of these themes more, as a way to really tell my own story my own way. I think that’s the key.
Do you plan to write other poems or novels that support the theme of women’s issues?
The short answer is no. I write from what sparks my interest. I don’t write about women’s issues at all. Only from the vantage of being a woman and that being all I’ve known. The focus of my work at the moment is on the intersections of the mundane and the divine in everyday experiences. I’ve been working on a project for quite some time that includes monologues of people who have experienced miracles. The project sparked the title of my next poetry collection, Beatific Toast.
Perhaps poetry is an overlooked style of writing why would you consider it as important? Does it help to improve our writing skills?
I’m probably biased, because I’m a poet, but I consider poetry to be a vital vehicle for the transmission of culture and shaping and framing our existence as humans. It is the soul of society really. It really can reconceptualise issues within society and it also uses emotions quite often as a gateway to create change on an individual and collective level. So it is deeply important; as is all art making. In answer to your second question, any type of sustained writing practice will lead to improvement if it is undertaken with a view to learning and allowing yourself to take constructive criticism. Yes, of course finding that perfect image, employing poetic devices and using constraints, these are all great skills for any writer’s toolkit, regardless of genre.
What was your favourite poem you have performed for an audience?
I wrote a piece called ‘The I’m So Sick of Jack Kerouac Blues’, which I love performing because I get to sing parts of it as well. It’s definitely my most performative and stage-oriented piece. The other piece is also part-sung and it’s called the Conductor. It’s a poem about grief and always receives a great response from the audience. I studied stage one conducting and its about the idea of channelling grief through music. Grief can often make a person feel out of control, so I like the idea of mindfulness and the way water and music flow through you.
Is Melbourne a good place to inspire poets to keep writing?
I’m based in Newcastle. When I was in Melbourne I found it to be an extremely collegial place for writers of all types. It is not just a City of Literature in name only, but has a very supportive community of writers. Organisations such as Melbourne Spoken Word have played a large part in creating a culture where anyone can have a go. There is not the same snobbery around being a writer that you get in some cities. It’s a very diverse and inclusive community with lots of great grassroots initiatives. I’ve never lived in a city with such a thriving poetry community. It really is a great place for it.
My book A Tender Moment Between Strangers is available from our Girls on Key bookshop, along with some other poetry books by great female poets:
Reviewed by Angela Wauchop
“She reads each word carefully and I follow along in my head. ‘“A particularly fine specimen,”’ she says, her finger drawing an imaginary line under the small print. It is so small that I have to lean in to make out the words. ‘What a strange way to describe her. Like she should be dropped into a jar. Dropped into a jar and kept on a shelf, high up so no-one can reach her.’”
Joanna Atherfold Finn’s first book, ‘Watermark’, is a collection of eleven short stories set in exquisitely depicted coastal areas of Australia. Each piece stands strongly on its own. But as the collection unwinds, familiar names occasionally re-emerge, sometimes years later, throughout the subsequent narratives. The subtle linking of the stories is a satisfying device, with each story building on an often heartbreaking, but sometimes humorous world of characters, locations and observations. It is clear that as a writer, Atherfold Finn is an acute observer, of life, of people and of detail.
‘Lone Shark’ depicts the confronting story of ten-year-old Austin, a boy who struggles with dyslexia. The story, which begins light-heartedly enough, grows increasingly dark and alarming. It becomes apparent that Austin’s dyslexia is not the most troubling aspect of the little boy’s sad and disturbed existence. The story is, however, beautifully told by the author through the voice of a ten-year-old; it is a very effective, yet different voice in contrast to the tone of the strong opening story of ‘Boondi Wars’.
Many of the book’s stories deal with very serious issues, such as emotional and sexual abuse, depression and alcoholism. Yet the stories manage to effortlessly incorporate light-hearted moments of humour and insight, as well as many effectively descriptive depictions of Australian coastal life. In ‘The Neighbours’, Atherfold Finn peppers the story’s sad undertones with warm nostalgia and funny character anecdotes, my favourite of which was the mention of “Fat Cat” from 1980s children’s television fame. It was a laugh-out-loud moment for me when a character who had played the role of Fat Cat, described it as an intense and bitterexperience.
In contrast with ‘Lone Shark’, the story of ‘Jesus Sandals and Anchovette’ is an unusual narrative written in the “second person”. Although the stories are linked, this one is lighter and more innocent, and I particularly enjoyed Atherfold Finn’s spot-on description of a classroom smelling ‘like old honey sandwiches and mandarin peel’. I have indeed been in the annexe of that ancient demountable.
If you’ve ever lived out in the Aussie suburbs or in a middle-class housing development, ‘Oasis Estate’ succinctly and brilliantly spells out your gated community Colorbond nightmare. So true is the experience of the characters in ‘Oasis Estate’ and indeed throughout the whole book, it became apparent to me that Atherfold Finn has not only observed, but she has lived, really lived. She might have even really lived the insanity of an integrated bathroom where ‘steam wafts into the bedroom making everything dank’. I know, right?
I did not expect the final story of ‘Watermark’ to link back to the first story ‘Boondi Wars’ so fittingly and succinctly. ‘An Almost Happy Ending’ sheds unexpected clarity and light on the emotional and sandy water-themed introduction and beachy overtones of the entire book. Joanna Atherfold Finn cleverly concludes ‘An Almost Happy Ending’ a few paragraphs before a less bold and confident writer would end it, leaving me—the reader—looking forward to anything Joanna Atherfold Finn comes up with next.
Reviewed by Angela Wauchop
“He loves women, appreciates them as much as any man, but ultimately they find themselves achingly hungry with him. And he refuses to feed them. His artistry for playing the piano seduces them. His lack of artistry as a man is why they leave.”
American author and neuroscientist Lisa Genova is not a stranger to hard yakka and broaching the gritty and the unspeakable in all aspects of her work. The author’s latest novel, ‘Every Note Played’, expertly complements the emotion, compassion and success of her debut novel ‘Still Alice’ and its Oscar-winning screen adaptation. Genova’s ‘Every Note Played’ confronts us with the gut-wrenching and heart-breaking decline of the character Richard Evans, a gifted and celebrated concert pianist, suddenly diagnosed in his mid-forties with motor neurone disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
‘Every Note Played’ begins with short, fluid chapters, which effortlessly paint a portrait of a world and its characters very early in the book. The reader is introduced to Richard, a successful musician, passionate about his piano; unapologetic about his talent, his womanising and his broken family. As the disease ravages his failing body, steals away his career, his mobility and his dignity, the ALS inevitably focuses Richard’s attention on his failed marriage, and the distance between him and his adult daughter, Grace.
But Richard’s ex-wife, Karina, is not blameless in the breakdown of their marriage, which ended three years before. Early in the story the reader begins to wonder, Oh boy, what on Earth did Karina do? Karina, who migrated to the United States from Poland when she was eighteen, was also a gifted pianist. But Karina gave it all up; or, perhaps more fittingly, tossed it aside and stomped on it when motherhood, a strained marriage and a move to a new city complicated things. To the point where the mere idea of playing piano and her beloved jazz music ever again was simply taboo.
There are many more tragic layers to the story other than the chokehold of the terrible disease that is ALS. The other layers are even more tragic than the portrayal of ALS itself. Particularly heartbreaking to me was the broken and toxic relationship of Richard with his father who seemed to have acted like a cranky unreasonable child, throwing tantrum after tantrum during Richard’s bullied childhood.
Now struggling to adapt to his new life, Richard composes letters to his father but never sends them.
While ‘Every Note Played’ sheds deserved attention on ALS sufferers and the struggles of their carers and families, the book is not, to me, really about ALS. The horrific disease is the backdrop to a story about complicated people, relationships, family, communication and most of all, being human.
Reviewed by Angela Wauchop
‘Did you want me to teach you about galaxies and how a sprinkle of magic could keep them efficient? Did you want me to clap my hands and say: Look at this world. Isn’t it beautiful?’ Zhorr pressed his hands together. ‘This, my son, concludes our history session.’—A Maji Maji Chronicle
Dying & Other Stories is a collection of 16 short narratives by Australian author and 2017 Aurealis Convenors Award for Excellence nominee Eugen Bacon. True to speculative fiction’s promise to make the reader ask, ‘what if?’, Dying & Other Stories goes beyond the limitations of literary definition and expectation. Each story in the collection is vastly different from the next—in voice, setting and length. Yet the book comprises an assemblage of narratives that flow seamlessly from one to the other, with snappy dialogue and striking imagery that roll off the tongue and widen the reader’s eyes.
The first story in the collection asks what if some of the people we pass in the street aren’t people at all? This opening narrative, ‘Dying’, depicts the suffering and frustration of protagonist Bluey, whose life begins to unravel into a frustrating mess of daily deaths and inevitable resurrections. Bluey begins to suspect that the boy he sees riding a scooter on the street might actually be a colleague of the angel of death. ‘Dying’ raises the question: is free will really a thing? Are you sure?
In ‘A Nursery Rhyme’, the character Venus learns the disturbing truth about her little girl, Dee. The child’s paternity and the disquieting circumstances of her conception come to light. Bacon prompts the reader to peer around a crooked corner of reality and ask what if your child isn’t who or what you think? What if her soul is impure, and her actions bloody and malevolent? I wondered how far a person might go to protect someone or something they love.
In fact, Bacon asks the reader how far reality television might go in the story ‘Realtime TV’. Aspects of the story had me asking myself if one of my favourite TV genres already goes too far. In ‘Realtime TV’, a voice in an earpiece instructs a father to pull a knife on his son. The narrative parallels the Bible’s Genesis story of Abraham and Isaac, and had me considering, for a moment, that I just might be an unknowing participant in the universe’s longest-running reality show—again—what if, what if?
‘A Maji Maji Chronicle’ presents the story of Zhorr and his son Pickle, time-travelling, inter-dimensional shapeshifting beings. Zhorr and Pickle are observers of history; they travel between universes to study the nature of humanity and existence. ‘A Maji Maji Chronicle’ compels the reader to consider the uncomfortable, even frightening idea that people, when put to the test, are all the same.
History, mythology and modern-day Aussie life intertwine in Bacon’s Dying & Other Stories. I found that each piece in the collection, whether long or short, is not over until you read the very last word. The reader’s anticipation remains until that final sentence is revealed, absorbed, digested. But if what you’re seeking are neatly wrapped answers tied with a ribbon, Dying & Other Stories of course won’t give you that. It is simply a book that delivers. It will present you with 16 narratives that are satisfying, mind-bending and thought-provoking reads.
Review by Kathryn Lamont
From alien planets to medieval battles, athletes to clones, Eugen Bacon and E. Don Harpe’s collection of literary speculative fiction, Thirteen Wicked Tales, tackles a wide variety of places, people and themes in thirteen bite sized pieces: easy for any book lover to devour on the go.
While each tale is different and exists as a standalone piece, all centre around peculiarity, uncanniness: situations one could only imagine in their most bizarre dreams. Short stories vary in length, so while fourteen pages outline a tale of time travel, girls and a planet in dire need for new offspring, a mere three pages explore a backwards individual sentenced to banishment and the Earthling desperately lusting after them. This variation in length works perfectly for people who pick out stories to fill in variant gaps of time (which, as an assignment writing university student, worked perfectly for me).
Even if speculative fiction isn’t your most well-versed genre, I found that there was something rooted in each story that made it easy to understand and be very readable, such as the rich cast of likeable characters I could personally invest in. Things are also painted in such vivid detail; the description of otherworldly beings and landscapes so visceral at times it’s almost like a movie. The writing in this collection can easily be noted as exceptional. I also enjoyed the quick pace of each work. In fact, there were times when I could see the end coming up in a mere page or two and couldn’t fathom how it could all possibly be tied up in a few paragraphs, but was pleasantly surprised by the twists and turns in each original ending.
Indeed, originality is a big stand out for this collection. Aside from following typical generic conventions, Eugen Bacon and E. Don Harpe collaborate brilliantly to create thirteen speculative pieces that each take a new turn down another original and exciting train of thought. Twists and turns that I never saw coming unfolded in a matter of sentences, sometimes leaving me gasping at the page. As a reader very much in love with the idea of having some semblance of a conclusion, I also thoroughly enjoyed the way each piece seemed to circle back around to the beginning to tie everything up in a big, satisfying bow.
I did find, however, that one does need to be tuned in at all times while reading this anthology, unless they are unopposed to going back and re-reading passages. Due to length, speculative content, and the fragmented nature of the short stories, one misread or missed sentence could lead to confusion later down the track. As someone new to short stories, let alone speculative fiction, I initially thought the fragmented gaps in the pieces were almost jarring at times – too big – but soon found a rhythm to the jumps, and, a layer of subtle detail in each piece that answers the questions one cannot go without knowing the answers to. Things are rarely spelled out for you, which I found refreshing, but that also accounted to the need to read things carefully and mindfully, lest you miss an important line.
Overall, there is something in this collection for anyone who has interests in anything fantastical, extra-terrestrial, otherworldly, or, futuristic. Thirteen Wicked Tales contains thirteen different universes, all ripe and ready for exploring.
By Skye Jenner.
I first read one of Isobelle Carmody’s books when I was ten-years-old – actually, it was one of the first books that my Mum decided to lend me – Billy Thunder and the Night Gate. Ever since then, I have absolutely loved every story of hers that I have managed to get my hot little hands on. Which was why it was such an enjoyable pleasure to spend forty minutes in a skype interview with her. Not only finding out about what makes her writing so relatable to such a mass audience, but also the ways in which Australia’s refugee conditions are completely abysmal and the ways in which we can all step up in one way or another to fight for what’s right.
Isobelle wasn’t necessarily ‘inspired’ to become a writer, rather it was something that she just did as a young child to try and make sense of the world. At the age of fourteen, when Carmody began to write the first story in the Obernewtyn Chronicles, she was faced with a lot of confusion. Her dad had been killed in a car accident, and the drunk driver who had caused the accident just walked away. The process of writing somehow helped to “make it clear” in a way that nothing else was able to do so. She never expected to get published, or find a way to make a living out of her words. Rather, the creation of Isobelle’s worlds has come purely from finding a way to understand the world around her and process her own thoughts and emotions.
Isobelle primarily writes for a young adult audience because she loves the courage and “mad ignorance” which it lends to her characters. These thoughts and characters don’t occur “off the top of [her] head, but off the top of [her] fingers”. Being a writer for Isobelle is a completely natural and subconscious process which lends itself to an “alchemy of understanding”. From this, Carmody enjoys the conversations that begin between her words and the greater world – the different ways in which people are able to absorb and make sense of her own words, and sometimes how the readers can use these to understand their reality. I know that as a child, reading about a Misfit helped me to embrace my own misfit status.
Although nothing particularly inspired Isobelle to become a writer, it just is what she is, the act of publication and editing has been something of a different journey. According to Isobelle, writing is about what you have to say and make sense of your own reality. But editing and publishing is all about marketing. A good editor will judge you on how well you write, whereas a good publisher is good at marketing the work to a large audience. Both of which are important when you wish to make a career out of being a writer.
When Isobelle was fourteen, she was a Misfit, but she didn’t quite understand why. After all, she liked herself, but she couldn’t understand why other people didn’t. As is often the case, this misfit status led to her being severely bullied, which then led her to question why, continuously. Hence Elspeth was born (the main character in the Obernewtyn Chronicles, if you haven’t yet read this, I suggest that you do so… it’s amazing). Elspeth too likes who and what she is, has an inner strength and wears her heart on her sleeve. Much like Isobelle. She never wanted friends unless they could accept her for herself, which never seemed to be the case for teenage Carmody. And so the rest of the Misfits were born – people who were able to form accepting friendships, something that did eventually happen for Isobelle too.
Elspeth encaptured Isobelle’s “wish to be special and have a purpose”. Something that I’m sure we have all wished for at one point. The fact that everyone has felt a little lost and like a bit of a misfit at some point in their lives wasn’t something that Isobelle purposely tapped into. Neither is the constant message of strength and bravery throughout her pieces. It is something that she wrote “without realizing”. The idea that a strong sense of self and integrity can lend itself to a strong character wasn’t something that Isobelle had consciously considered, but it is certainly a recurrent theme throughout her works.
One of the things that struck out at me most in Isobelle’s response to this question was the idea of the characterization difference between genders. She is currently working on a character who is a young male. Carmody’s editors even requested that he be changed to a female. But she can’t. Because in Isobelle’s writing and creation, she can make boys somewhat softer. All of her female characters are insulated and withdrawn with an amazing internal strength. Something that is supported by their withdrawal from others and the world. Contrastingly, she is able to make her young male character less armoured – he is able to be more of the world than the women, something that certainly reminds me of the differences in the ways I conduct myself to my male companions….
As a child, Isobelle didn’t have much access to the outside world. There were no newspapers or magazines in the house, and her mother rarely went out. Actually, the only thing that Carmody really had to read were encyclopedias – and the only thing interesting enough to read were myths and legends. Something which she believed were true until she was a little older. Her only personal experiences that worked their way into her writing were internal, not external.
When Isobelle was about fourteen, she had to do a project on the Manhattan Project, something that changed her views on the world forever. Actually, if you have read her Obernewtyn Chronicles, you can see the heavy influence of this and her confusion throughout the entire series. It was actually something that personally taught me a lot about the risks and horrors that science and politics can cause, particularly the impacts of nuclear warfare. The idea of a scientific responsibility and conscience resonated throughout Isobelle’s sudden awakening to her own morality.
For those people who haven’t followed Isobelle on Facebook (I strongly suggest you do), it is obvious, from this early awakening, she has become very involved in and aware of the rights of others. This began because when Isobelle finally got Facebook she was shown some videos of the Bile Bears. Eventually, she couldn’t stand by and let this continue, so she began to get involved in their rights and animal activism. This has slowly snowballed and now you can see her standing with her sign across the world, raising awareness about our refugees and the plight of our fellow humans.
Isobelle’s number one piece of advice to people who want to become more involved in others’ rights is to “take one step”. If you have never done anything at all, sign a petition or write a letter. If you do this regularly, take it another step, organize something, hold up a sign. Start a movement. Just take your involvement one step further. That’s all that it takes and it is how it started for Isobelle. She started fundraising, and started by making small movements, and this slowly snowballed until she was recently threatened with arrest because she was holding her sign.
No matter how scary taking a step up might be, you can do it. When Isobelle returned to the place where she was threatened with arrest, she was shaking with fear. Although this fear didn’t quite go away, she was able to face up to it and feel stronger afterwards. Many people asked her questions and wanted to help her in some way and in doing so, she was able to not only stand up for herself, but also those without a voice. If you want to make your own sign and hold it up, tag Isobelle on social media – she wants to start a global movement, and has already started doing so, so let’s keep it rolling.
“If you can write stories, you should.” Isobelle’s number one piece of advice is to write the way you want and what you want. Don’t think about publishing or marketing until you have written what you want. Otherwise, you get a little too caught up in selling the manuscripts, not actually creating what you enjoy. Don’t think about the genre, the audience or where you will be able to sell your work. Concentrate on the writing.
Although Isobelle’s biggest piece of advice is making sure that you just write, she had another piece of really interesting advice that I had never thought of. She suggested that you try and get short stories published. It is much easier to get a short story published in a collection than a novel, especially in today’s climate. Once you have a few short stories published, you might be able to get noticed and get your name out there.
And Isobelle’s last piece of advice to aspiring writers – READ! If you don’t read much, you probably won’t write much. The two aspects feed on one another and are equally as important.
Reviewed by Ziqi Yue
The Monster Apprenticeis a fantasy novel that explores the themes of courage, friendship and love. Written by Felicity Banks, a Canberra author specializing in fantasy and interactive fiction, the text includes captivating descriptions of mythical creatures, pirates, conflict and a young girl’s quest to save her home.
The Monster Apprenticetells a story that a girl named Dance, who lives in an ice island with her family and friends. When pirates come to the island, and the people are frightened because they have no way to fight, Dance decision to try to save her home sends her on a journey of courage, survival and personal growth.
While the conflict with the pirates – who attempt to invade the island – is a main plotline of this story, it creates a backdrop of the reader to observe the Dance’s ability to thrive in the most brutal of circumstances. Furthermore, the plot also focuses on Dance’s change and growth during the process. Like so many other teenagers, she has some conflict with her parents and wants to prove herself to them. The relationship between Dance and her friends are always changing as well. While everyone has their own secrets, they still love each other and attempt to maintain their friendships. Young readers, especially, will be able to resonate with the plot as it mirror’s so many elements of young adulthood.
One moment of the book that I personally empathized with was a conversation between Dance and her dad; after she has broken her neighbor’s window. Rather than being allowed to escape punishment, her father states: ‘This is where I tell you that you’ll be paying for it yourself. In full.’ This is exactly what adults do: take responsibility for their own behavior; regardless of their intent. It reminded me of my own parents, who have said the same words to me.
Banks’ writing, within this novel, is both beautiful and vivid. ‘The night air was hot and still. My sheets lay in a crumpled heap on the floor. At the open window my curtains hung in unmoving black lines. No wind slid through to ease the stifling heat. My long black hair felt heavy around my head. I didn’t dare move.’ Furthermore, Banks showed the intelligence of a seasoned author to portray Dance’s emotions and inner thoughts.; like nervousness and anxiety. She clearly made a conscious effort to ensure the reader absorbs the humanness of Dance. Like Dance, we have all grown up with parental love and the company of friends. The things we meet, and the memories we make along the way, decide who we are. We might not face the same fantastical struggles as Dance, but we have all felt the same heartbreak, conflict and bravery she felt between the pages of The Monster’s Apprentice.
“Knock people’s places down, just makes them cling on harder. Then you got people clinging on to dreams, and you can’t ever fight that. […] Cut something back just makes it grow thicker and faster, Carla says, but I guess no one ever told the police that.”
We Go Around in the Night and are Consumed by Fire is British author Jules Grant’s first novel. Set in modern times in Manchester, England, Grant’s first offering of urban fiction grittily portrays the lives of the central character, Donna, and her ten-year-old god-daughter, Aurora. Both are caught up in or affected by organised crime, gang violence and poverty in a not very nice part of town.
After I began reading the book, I very quickly noticed unusual things about this fast-paced and absorbing narrative. The book is written in present tense, which is a clever tactic by which Grant immediately immerses the reader into the story, its action and setting. The story switches between Donna and Aurora’s narration. They have distinct but incredibly authentic and likeable… even lovable… voices.
From the onset, I noticed words we don’t use in Australia. What the heck is a ginnel? Turns out it’s an alleyway. At first the new words and colloquialisms were disconcerting, along with the complete absence of any quotation marks throughout the entire story. But I persevered, and soon became accustomed to the style and voice of the novel, and the fantastic pace afforded by such writing methods.
In the spirit of urban fiction, Grant presents the reader with many confronting issues. In the same spirit, Grant unapologetically bombards the reader with the introduction of several characters throughout the book. Fortunately, the number of characters is not too overwhelming, and they are necessary to present the book’s many uncomfortable themes and images.
If urban fiction is meant to be gritty… gritty is what you get. We Go Around in the Night and are Consumed by Fire deals with grit such as torture, murder and violence, as well as the heartbreaking effects of poverty on children and families. Despite her gang associations and life in organised crime, Donna, a lesbian in her late twenties is smart, likeable, real and extremely loyal. When the story’s narration shifts to ten-year-old Aurora, the incredible authenticity of the little girl’s voice both delights and heartbreakingly dismays.
The book is peppered with flashbacks, which propel the story rather than hinder it, and add to its incredible momentum. Beautiful and relatable descriptions also feature throughout the story. A particularly moving one: “Me, I like the way it makes me feel when I sit here. Gives me a wide-open feeling, like there’s no doubt about it, there’s something beyond. I get the same thing at the airport, and Piccadilly station. Things moving, people going somewhere. Things rolling forward somehow. You can’t beat it.” How authentic and effective this snippet makes you feel, like you’ve lived it… like you’ve been there!
By Lorne Johnson
Artwork by Jackie Benney. Published with permission of the artist.
By Louise Carter
(‘Hot Clouds’ was Highly Commended in the Judith Wright Poetry Prize 2018.)
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.
By Lizz Murphy
Items listed taken from article in
The Sydney Morning Herald — Weekend January 16-17, 2016
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.
By Lizz Murphy
An ekphrastic sequence written in response to photo-stories by award winning photojournalist Magnus Wennman titled Where the Children Sleep published at Mashable Australia. My thanks to Magnus Wennman.
Some sections have been previously published on Not Very QuietURL:
and Project 366.
Artwork by Jackie Benney. Published with permission of the artist.
By Moya Pacey
In the dark cage of the village
a woman’s voice sings of the girl
who stole her brothers’ honour.
They shaved her black curls,
closed her green eyes, scooped
the body into a sack
threw it into the cold river.
Come back into the world
girl with black curls and green eyes.
Put on your wedding shoes.
Let your hennaed fingers
beat the hand drum.
Sing your landay
over and over.
(First published in ‘One last border: poetry for refugees’ by Hazel Hall, Moya Pacey and Sandra Renew (Ginninderra Press, Adelaide, Australia 2015); also published in ‘Eureka Street’ 2015 and in Moya’s poetry collection, ‘Black Tulips’ (Recent Works Press, 2017).)
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.
By Moya Pacey
Dressed in a shapeless abaya
she is neither young nor old.
The cardboard box has moulded to the shape
of her black-veiled head, she holds it steady
right arm extended, narrow wrist exposed,
fingers at full stretch.
Her face uncovered and her gaze calm
unhurried she turns to the camera,
eyes narrowed against the light.
Behind her in the photograph, men
walk along an ancient road
towards the open gate of the refugee camp.
The men wear jeans and warm jackets.
Some have hoods pulled around their faces
others bare headed. All empty handed.
The scene might belong in a book of bible stories.
The story in which the woman goes to the well
balancing a ewer of water on her head.
The one where she meets a Good Samaritan.
(First published in Moya’s poetry collection, Black Tulips (Recent Work Press, 2017).)
Artwork by Jackie Benney. Published with permission of the artist.
By Ramon Loyola
Trammelled by felled trees on each side of the
shore, my limbs feel invisible and mangled,
after two months and a quarter of a night
at sea, with hands firmly shackled by breaths
on a bobby boat full of desiccated
skin and saltine hair, the lips chalked by the salt
of the sea, the eyes stung by murmurous
soot in the wind — I don’t know which peril is
more fatal: the carmine depths of the waters
outside Sadr or the denied embrace
(anticipant promises) in the reaches
of Darwin. It is pertinent. It is the
way of destiny. Not fate. Not fate.
Were there stories told of escapes from the
mouths of vagabonds, there would as well be tales
of sorrow in the choking limbs of sentinels
and wire. All I need is the embrace of
freedom, the insured lush of wind in my hair,
of sun in my eyes, the sun that blankets your
shores, the wind that blows through your valleys.
The land promises that; the man’s arms are folded
in perceived peril. Promises — they fall and
fail and falter in embraces denied,
never given, almost always foresworn.
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.
By Nessa O’Mahony
Strewn leaves trip up
on the weary walk
to the car parked
far enough out to be free.
The Starlet misplaced
on this street of Victorian villas,
high gates, granite steps
rising to painted porticoes,
bay trees in pots
I look up as the young man
skips down the last few steps,
lips moving to the beat
of a hidden blue-tooth.
Closer, I hear
what is untranslatable,
the growling vowels
of Eastern Europe.
Surprised, I tip my hat
to integration, admire
the upwardly mobile
as he strides easily
I miss the satchel on his back,
the rolled up copies
as he fords the next gate
under the sign
that the house is to let.
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.
By Sandra Renew
why are the poets the first to be killed?
he was killed because of that poem
where did he hide his poems?
he hides them in his head
and so did we…
when they opened his chest with those bullets
they saw the words also on his heart
a poet is a dangerous thing to be…
(First published in One Last Border: Poetry for Refugees(eds. Hazel Hall, Moya Pacey and Sandra Renew, Ginninderra Press, 2015).)
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.
By Sandra Renew
one million bones
we all want someone
to know our death
(First published in Atlas Poetica 20: A journal of World Tanka (ed. M. Kei, Keibooks, 2015).)
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.
By Fiona Perry
My kind owes a debt to the people of the Choctaw Nation
Torn from the bones their progenitors left as a sacred
Deposit on land as revered as womb. They know
What it is to be a tribe shaped by tears.
To the unbroken, newly freed men and women of the Caribbean.
To the pogrom-sorrowed Jews of Congregation Shearith Israel.
To the unproselytizing Quaker. To the principled sepoy of Calcutta.
To the redeemed and redeemable of Sing Sing and the prison
Ship Warrior. We, the Irish, honour you in increments by burying
Ebola victims with dignity, blanketing Syrian refugees in
Camp and succouring the famished of East Africa. Some
Leave a corner of their field for the poor and the stranger
If they are able; the Sultan of Turkey and Baron Rothschild.
The rest of us, we will feed our kindred with a widow’s mite.
Certain of the crystal growth of it. The fractals meshing on and on and on.
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.
By Richard James Allen
I am not sure if where you live
is a statement of intent.
It might be a statement of accident.
Like accidents of the light
reflecting between the eyes of two
soon no longer to be strangers,
followed by accidents of love
or accidents of fear,
and then accidents of birth
or accidents of death.
Don’t take for granted
your passports or your borders.
There are no insurance policies for
the accidents of history.
(Previously published in Colon, C., A. Gristwood, & M. Woolf, eds. (2018): Globalization, Civilization, and Their Discontents, CAPA: The Global Education Network, Boston, MA.)
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.
i live out of sydney these days it is close
to the beach though we are not wealthy.
Some days there are whales other days dolphins
occasional jellies and never dead babies i like visiting
the art gallery in the city it takes me one hour
to drive there i park at the expensive
multi-storey it is a $10 flat rate on a sunday
after parking i cut through hyde park past the statue
of robert burns standing alone and too far away
from scotland we are both foreigners here of the acceptable
kind. i like the location of the gift shop
it is right next to the entry which is also the exit
i always go to the gift shop first they have handbags
made of unshaved cow and earrings like hot air balloons
and a dimly lit section at the back with mysterious
art books in thick polythene covers the thickness
of the polythene indicates their seriousness
and the price and there is an arsehole in there wearing
jesus sandals though he bears no resemblance
to jesus and the arsehole says to a random
woman (who turns out to be an arsehole too) he took a holiday
in paris once on the left bank some thirty
years back when it really was something and if hitler
was alive today this whole thing with the syrian refugees
would not be happening and the female arsehole agrees
then the jesus sandalled arsehole says what’s going
on over there is nothing but a european invasion
and the subject of the little boy’s body on bodrum
beach comes up and i have been there on holidays
some thirty years back when it really was something
the hotel was right next door to the doctor’s surgery
bent black clad women came daily clacked rosary
beads on milk crates in full view of fat tourists
bathing topless on hotel loungers ordering
chips and cokes they did not need from kadir
the turkish waiter who brought me proper chai
in a glass and taught me how to say
‘tomorrow i am going to instanbul’.
After the little boy’s body got washed
up on the sand australia offered synthetic
duvets fake chai lattes and empty promises
to twelve thousand of the five million
in camps who cry themselves to sleep at night
and i have calculated this on my iPhone and it works
out to be a teardrop in the ocean to the closest
decimal point australia i have offered
more hope to more cockatoos more safety
to kookaburras more gum leaves to koalas
than the crumbs you are flicking
from your all you can eat buffet
it is time to feed the birds australia
tuppence a fucking bag sure what does it cost
to pipe in a haggis share some tatties and neeps
raise a glass to their health mia council
casa es tu council casa australia the world’s
eyes are rolling in your general direction
and right now you look like some kind of jesus
sandalled arsehole sitting on the veranda
of your ocean front property with your deep pockets
and short arms pretending you don’t even know
it’s your turn to buy the next round at the bar.
(First published in Ali Whitelcok’s debut poetry collection, ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’ (Wakefield Press, 2018).)
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.
“Let’s not talk about
“You’re going to let
ruin a friendship?”
“Two things you never discuss at dinner;
“Ignorance is bliss,
just makes people depressed.”
“Life’s too short for
Sew buttons on your own eyes,
leave mine open.
Give me that remote and unmute
that, I need to hear
what’s going on.
If we don’t talk about it,
how will we know
we deserve to live?
we deserve to love?
We deserve to live freely
without fear of boot-in-the-door raids?
of gun-to-your-head arrests?
If we opened our mouths
and sang with our convictions,
at least we’d know where we all stood:
are you on a precipice,
or am I about to jump?
none of us wants to be
but the cheetah doesn’t ask the zebra
if it can be devoured,
which is to say
we might be animals,
but we’re trying to be better
and sometimes better
means stepping on some toes
and saying, “no,
what you’re doing is wrong.”
opinions are like assholes,
but they’re also for things like
“I prefer caramel over vanilla.”
“I don’t think you deserve rights.”
A sea of humanity is frothing,
scared, and looking into our eyes.
As we turn our backs,
those with the keys have
unplugged the drain,
hoping we don’t notice
as that sea dries up
but we do.
how will that crow taste
when you’re forced to chow it down
as you look upon the crowds
and announce, “I did nothing”?
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.
By Wendy J. Dunn
I want to cry
They haunt me
Disengaged from life
Babies who don’t know
How to play
Babies born in prison
Born in fear
A prison for the innocent
Men, women, babies
Locked away for –
A denial of our humanity?
What are we doing?
What am I doing?
How can I be human
When I avert
From Babies’ eyes?
I am ashamed
I am an Australian
I cannot wash my hands
Of this massacre of the Innocents
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.
This is a book you should 100% add to your collection. It is above all a story of love and a journey to find the truth behind closed doors.
Julia Prendergast’s debut novel The Earth Does Not Get Fat is a carefully crafted and beautiful piece of Australian literature. In a work that bares the hardships experienced by real people and how that suffering can be spread through generations, Prendergast writes her characters with total affection and an undeniable talent for revealing the brutal realities of their lives. We see in this novel what life can be like for people affected by trauma and dementia, and the series of complicated emotions experienced by the teenage Chelsea when she becomes the full time carer for not only her mother, but her grandfather as well. Chelsea does this all out of love and shows a deep attachment to the both of them and an intrinsic personal need to do it all on her own. Prendergast does not shy from the gritty details of Chelsea’s life as a carer and she does not hesitate to deliver that sense of heartbreak to her readers.
She can’t get up for days at a time and her hair is greasy and her breath is bad. She can’t talk to you and her eyes can’t look at you. And her skin is yellow and wrong. Promise me you won’t think she’s disgusting and horrible. She’s my mum. You can’t be mean to her because she can’t help that she looks revolting…You can’t judge her, please. She looks whacked out and disgusting. You have to remember that she’s really beautiful. (p65-68)
The Earth Does Not Get Fat explores typical Australian attitudes and ways of life. And does so in such a way that mirrors Australian life and culture. Chelsea seeks the truth of her mother’s past. She is driven by her love for her family and her will to do the best she can by them despite living under difficult circumstances. The reader is taken on a journey with Chelsea as she learns the truth of her family’s past and of events that changed the course of their lives. Prendergast delivers the story in a realistic Australian voice with a careful love for words and a promise to reveal the horrible truths of this family’s life toward an understanding of their suffering.
The Earth Does Not Get Fat is above all else a story of love. A behind-closed-doors love that shows the unwavering resilience and support Chelsea gives to her mother and her Grandpa. Chelsea sets out to uncover the truth of her family and the traumatic secrets left buried at sea. The story takes the reader behind the curtain into Chelsea’s world and the reader learns with her the secrets of her mother’s life as she patiently listens to the painful, barefaced stories of her past.
By Madeleine Reid.
Dark Matters is a terrifying, yet beautiful novel by the Australian writer, Susan Hawthorne, published by the feminist and contemporary Spinifex Press, in 2017. It deals with the issues of homophobia, love, family, female heroism and terror.
This unique book defies categorisation. It is a work of literary fiction, with a side of horror, crime, and mystery. It is even dystopian at times.
It is a moving, post-modern novel about the disappearance and death of Kate, a lesbian who falls victim to a hate crime. The story is set in Australia, South America and Europe, and is told through three narrators: Mercedes, Kate and Desi.
We are first introduced to Mercedes, whose apt nick-name is Merci. The double meaning of ‘thank you’ in French and ‘mercy’ in English, as Kate retreats mercifully into memories with her partner.
Kate and Mercedes were in a relationship and Desi is Kate’s niece. In a secret dawn raid, Kate is abducted by unknown government officials in Australia and put in prison. Kate narrates through her prison diaries, the torture, beatings and rape she endures. Desi tries to understand Kate’s life by reading papers and tracking down Mercedes’ history too.
The novel moves almost randomly back and forth in time from before and after Kate’s death. Hawthorn also cleverly uses Kate’s numbered journal entries as hints of chronology, which chillingly evoke the ways in which the torture is changing Kate’s character.
The title alone indicates the depth of the novel. Dark Matters. As in Dark Matter that makes up the majority of the universe. We know it is there, and we can observe its gravitational pull but haven’t been able to access it directly or figure out what it is. In the wake of formal marriage equality for gay people, the kidnap and torture of Kate is a startling articulation of the ‘evident and invisible’ anti-gay structures that lurk beneath our cultural surface [quote is from Foucault, The Order of Things1970]. Hawthorne’s confronting book makes one wonder at the horrific possibilities beyond the scope of legislated equality; let us not forget that one in three Australians opposed it in the plebiscite.
Hawthorne opts to leave the page headers blank of her name and chapter titles, allowing the reader no escape – beyond the unavoidable numbering of pages – from the captivating discomforts she provides. Her short, declarative sentences enable the reader to forget themselves and imbibe the heady, bitter story without effort.
Even the book’s cover is captivating. Far from the generic photos of random people or figures to which I have become accustomed, it is a work of art in its own right. It features a black background, with pink text, white and black lines, red and black dots. The swirls, lines and dots are mitochondrial DNA.
To me this book is an amazing and individual way of exploring intense social issues. It makes connections to what happened to the Lesbians in Nazi Germany, and also what is still happening today in countries where lesbian’s freedom is not protected like it is in Australia.
I admire how she dealt with such horror filled themes that disgusted and engaged me as a reader at the same time. She manages to add some beauty to all this dark matter.
It has definitely left me in a different place. My understanding and experiences are expanded and clearer. For this, I highly recommend reading Dark Matters.
Lastly, I would like to put a disclaimer out to readers with their own traumas or experiences, to tread carefully. This novel confronts and challenges – and bravely deals with issues which may leave some disturbed.
Review written by Nik Shone
In her new collection, Dark Matter, Robin Morgan explores themes that have been prevalent throughout her life as she details her experiences in ageing and her diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. The collection starts with her beautiful poem, The Magician and The Magician’s Assistant where she invites the reader into her thoughts and her sense of self. Much of the collection invites the reader to look at their perceptions of ageing and death and focuses on her love of poetry and words. Morgan has a keen awareness of mortality but explores the ideas and themes of death, rather as themes of life, claiming that it is joy that makes dying hard, as it is easy to let go when you are in pain, but not so much when you are witnessing the sweetness the world has to offer.
Through her collection, Morgan explores the woman she was once sure of, and the person she is becoming through her experience. She focusses very much on how her illness has changed her and how much she is growing into herself through her experience with Parkinson’s disease, and in the wisdom she has gained through growing small and continuing to grow older.She explores what she finds interesting, ironic, funny, and riling through her poems and gives the reader important lessons through her talent for playing with words and her unique human experience. But she also highlights what does not make her unique in her experience of being a woman, wherein a podcast about the collection she describes that if you are born a woman in a patriarchal society, you are going to have bad experiences, which she relates highly to the recent #metoo and Time’s Up movements.
Robin hones her craft through these pages and has said herself that she thinks this is her best published poetry collection to date. She chooses her words with careful thought and explores her ideas passionately. Her love for poetry inspires a beautiful sense of wonder and awe in this poet and ignites a fire in the feminist in us all. Dark Matter by Robin Morgan is an absolute masterpiece and should be shared with everyone willing to listen.
By Denise O’Hagan
I tread between slabs of stone
shining like the underbellies of giant bugs
in the shimmering light
of an autumn afternoon
and think that this was just
the sort of day he would have loved.
He used to eat olives
and now he is here.
He used to drink
his coffee espresso
standing up at a bar
and now he is
a quiet man
a reserved man
he did not subscribe
to the confessional age
but rather to an older European formality
like his suits, his polished shoes
and his ability to listen
and now he
I jam the bottlebrush
into granite urns
spots of blood
speckling my knuckles
Artwork by Jackie Benney. Published with permission of the artist.
Ali Whitelock is a Scottish poet and writer. Her memoir, ‘Poking seaweed with a stick …’ was published to critical acclaim in Australia and the UK. Her debut poetry collection, ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’ will be published mid-2018 by Wakefield Press. Her poems have appeared in The Moth Magazine, The American Journal of Poetry, Gutter Magazine, NorthWords Now, The Poets’ Republic, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Red Room Company, Beautiful Losers Magazine and The Pittsburgh Quarterly. Her poem, ‘the cumquats of christmas past’ has been entered by Ink Sweat & Tears into The Forward Prize for Best Poem of 2018.
Jesse Williams is a writer from Victoria’s surf coast currently studying a Bachelor of Arts at Swinburne, majoring in creative writing. He has been inspired by countless writers since first reading Harry Potter at a young age, but would mention Cormac McCarthy, Neil Gaiman and Paul Stewart as notable influences.
Moya Pacey was born and grew up in Middlesbrough in the north of England. She came to Canberra in 1978 when it was a country town masquerading as a city and taught English until she retired in 2005. Her second collection, Black Tulips was published by Recent Work Press in 2017. Her first, The Wardrobe (Ginninderra Press) was runner up for the ACT Writers’ Centre Poetry Award in 2010. Her poems are published widely in Australia and overseas and have appeared on buses and gallery walls and won prizes. In 2015, she published One Last Border: Poetry for Refugees with Hazel Hall and Sandra Renew (Ginninderra Press). She is co-editor with Sandra Renew and Tikka Wilson of the online poetry journal Not Very Quiet. https://not-very-quiet.com/contributors-editors/moya-pacey/ .With Sandra Renew, she curates a space for women’s poetry @ Smiths Alternative every third Monday as part of @ That Poetry Thing Every Monday @Smiths
Louise is a Sydney poet whose work has appeared in Best Australian Poems 2012 & 2015, Cordite Poetry Review, Meanjin, Westerly and Seizure. She is slowly completing a Doctor of Creative Arts through the Writing & Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University.
Fiona’s short stories and poetry have been published in The Irish Literary Review, Spontaneity Magazine, Into The Void, Dodging The Rain and Skylight47 amongst others. She grew up in Ireland but has lived most of her adult life in England and Australia. She currently lives in New Zealand. Follow her on Twitter @Fionaperry17.